Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 10 – Kurt Busch and “The Double”

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source: AP
Kurt Busch starred in his IndyCar debut at the Indy 500, part of his bid to do the Double. Photo: AP.

MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we’re at No. 10 – Kurt Busch’s bid to accomplish one of racing’s greatest feats…

Kurt Busch wanted a challenge. And in American motorsport, there’s one challenge that stands out from all the rest.

Running the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the same day is a test of strength, endurance, and logistics for everyone involved – not just the driver, but also their teams, their sponsors, and their families.

But it’s the driver that has perhaps the most grueling task: 500 miles at Indy, the most famous oval on Earth, followed by 600 miles at Charlotte in NASCAR’s longest race.

Before Busch chose to do “The Double,” the feat had not been attempted since 2004. And only one driver had been able to complete all 1,100 miles of it: Busch’s NASCAR boss/teammate, Tony Stewart, who finished sixth at Indy and then third at Charlotte in 2001.

Stewart’s distinction would remain only his at the end of Busch’s attempt to finish the full Double. On Lap 274 of 400 at Charlotte, the engine on Busch’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet gave up the ghost. He had run 906 miles of the 1,100 he was shooting for.

But while Busch’s Double ended abruptly, the world had discovered just how special a talent he is behind the wheel.

Making a debut in an IndyCar can be tough enough, but Busch did it in the “500,” the world’s biggest race. And he did it in a backup car after he had crashed his primary Andretti Autosport Honda during practice that week.

Busch hung in there during the first half of the race, but began a methodical climb from mid-pack as the finish loomed larger. A string of late yellows gave him additional opportunities to gain more ground before he came home sixth in a steady performance that would earn him “500” Rookie of the Year honors.

Celebrations were brief as Busch was whisked away from the Brickyard to begin his journey to Charlotte. After going through bags of IV fluids and taking a nap, the Outlaw arrived for the “600” via helicopter.

source: Getty Images
Kurt Busch charged toward the front in Charlotte but was knocked out early due to an engine failure. Photo: Getty Images.

When he got out of the chopper, he was met with waves of applause from the NASCAR faithful for a job well done in Indiana. Busch started the “600” from the rear of the field due to missing the Sprint Cup driver’s meeting, but worked his way up into the Top 15 toward the halfway point.

But Busch’s progress would be halted. On Lap 225, Busch radioed the team and said the No. 41’s motor had dropped a cylinder. A second cylinder went too, and it was only a matter of time before the whole thing would go as well.

While disappointed with the Charlotte outcome, Busch still regarded the “Double” experience as one that he’ll always cherish.

“To feel the stock car right after driving the Indy car was a day I’ll never forget,” he said. “I can’t let the mood here with the car dampen what happened up at Indy today. That was very special.

“It takes a big team – it takes a team everywhere. Andretti Autosport gave me a Top-5 car to try and win the “500” with, and these Stewart-Haas guys gave me a good car tonight. The motor just went, sometimes that happens.

“All in all, I gave it my all. I tried hard. I had a lot of people helping me out. I want to say thanks to Gene Haas, Tony Stewart, Michael Andretti and this whole group. Everyone worked hard on this on both sides.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds