‘I’m not the top dog’: Kyle Busch embraces challenges of Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As exacting as any champion in NASCAR history, Kyle Busch will be accepting an unusual level of deference in his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona International Speedway.

He will be sharing the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 with three AIM Vasser Sullivan teammates, which will require compromise on the positioning of seats and pedals (much less the setup).

He will be yielding to the much faster DPI and LMP2 cars on virtually every green-flag lap he makes around the 3.56-mile layout.

He will be adjusting to a braking system that will require a radical new rethinking of his sublime driving style.

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A two-time Cup champion accustomed to knowing exactly what he wants in a race car will be learning on the fly for the first time in years as a 24-hour sports car rookie.

How will Busch adapt to being in his IMSA team’s supporting cast after often being the driving force behind Joe Gibbs Racing?

By embracing his situation with a humility that often isn’t associated with such a brash and mercurial superstar.

“It’s not hard for me, and I say that because I’m not the top dog,” Busch told NBC Sports. “There’s a top dog that’s way better, way smarter, way more experienced at these cars than I am, so I let Jack kind of take the reins.”

Kyle Busch talks with No. 14 co-owner Jimmy Vasser during the Roar (courtesy of IMSA).

“Jack” is Jack Hawksworth, the IndyCar and sports car veteran who has become Busch’s de-facto driving coach for Daytona. Beginning with an intensive five-hour session in a driving simulator last month at Toyota Racing Development in Salisbury, N.C., Busch constantly has cited Hawksworth’s pointers with being invaluable for getting up to speed.

But the learning curve was evident during the Roar before the Rolex test session when Busch initially was 3 seconds per lap off Hawksworth’s pace.

“I thought he did a good job,” Hawksworth said. “It’s a completely different car from anything he’s driven.”

That didn’t stop Busch’s demanding side from playfully peeking out at one point.

“I’ll prod (Hawkwsorth) a little bit when we he’s like, ‘You need to open up your hands, mate, in order to like get the drive off the corner,’ ” Busch said, affecting a British accent with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Well if the car was better I wouldn’t have to open up my hands so how about me tell them to try to fix it a few things for us and make it a little bit better.’ ”

Striving for greatness is the central thrust of Busch’s desire to race the Rolex 24 (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC on Saturday and includes NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass during the event before concluding from noon – 2 p.m. ET on Sunday on NBC).

He has watched the race draw champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and Formula One (Fernando Alonso) as well as Indianapolis 500 winners (Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay).

“It’s pretty cool to watch the different guys that come from be it IndyCar or NASCAR or even V-8 Super Cars or guys from overseas that come over here and give this race a go,” Busch said. “It means a big deal and means a lot to a lot of guys.”

Here are a few of the more difficult aspects of his transition:


Traffic: While being lapped incessantly, Busch will be relying heavily for help in navigating a track that will be jammed with more than three dozen cars for a full day. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is both the largest (18 of the 38 cars in the field) and slowest of the four classes. The DPI and LMP2 cars will be turning laps that are roughly 9 to 12 seconds faster than Busch’s Lexus, which also will be slightly off the pace of the similar GTLM cars.

Tony Hirschman, his longtime spotter in NASCAR, will be relaying information on the type of cars that are coming and the drivers behind the wheel. A system of lights also can help identify the division.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment, for sure, of being able to know what’s coming, who’s coming, what type of car and trying to figure out all of the little tricks of the trade,” Busch said. “The spotter’s communication is a big deal of where they’re at, how fast they’re gaining, knowing the closing rate and trying to figure that out so you can kind of figure out a spot on the track of where you know you’re going to be clear. I imagine in the race when there’s a heck of a lot of them coming at you in a hurry that it’s going to be a bit trickier.”

Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, who raced in the top division of the Rolex the past seven years, said he always was glad to be driving the faster car while tiptoeing through the GT battles in the middle of the night.

“It’s mayhem,” Taylor said. “They’re glued together half the race. Which he (Busch) used to, but it’s going to be different. He’s got to share the car, it’s 24 hours. It’s so easy to get in the middle without getting caught up in a battle with one guy. Those sorts of things still happen to me after like 10 years of this race. I’ll get caught up in something and realize, “Why am I doing this?”

“He’ll have those same moments of battling someone and say, ‘This doesn’t matter. I need to relax.’ Or else he’ll get caught up in it.”

The No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

Two sports car veterans with NASCAR experience believe Busch will be fine as long as he has patience and strategy.

Colin Braun, who became a friend of Busch’s while racing often in the Truck and Xfinity series from 2008-11, said stock-car drivers have the skillset to adjust.

“Racing those guys and seeing how good they are on road courses, and the feel they have for the car on the limit is impressive,’ Braun said. “Those guys are superstars, and a guy like Jimmie Johnson showed that many times coming into Grand Am DP cars back in the day. I have no doubt a guy like Kyle is going to be really, really fast. When I first went into NASCAR, being fast wasn’t the issue. It was just the experience.

“A guy like Kyle I don’t think has been passed by eight prototype cars lined up nose to tail while working through the GTLM field, so I think the experience is toughest the thing to gain.”

Andy Lally, a five-time Rolex 24 winner who spent the 2011 season in the NASCAR Cup Series, said “the biggest thing coming from a racing series that races one class of car is that when you’re at Daytona and it’s 24 hours long and you’re interacting with four different races going on at the same time.

“There is definitely a way to strategize getting by and getting people by you to make it efficient so that your lap time is staying consistent. It’s impossible to rail off qualifying laps while Prototypes are coming by while you’re fighting with cars in class. But there’s definitely an efficient way to get it by for both speed and safety.”


Technology: Busch will have some new toys to employ: An antilock braking system (ABS) and traction control, neither of which is available in NASCAR.

It theoretically should allow for much better handling, but it also will require Busch retraining himself to trust a car that is lighter, sleeker and more responsive than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

There’s a lot of driver assist with (sports) cars,” Busch said. “Being able to abuse the heck out of the car and just drive the living snot out of it into the corners, braking as late as you can, as hard as you can, getting right to the ABS limit then trailing your brake and getting ready for the apex and all that sort of stuff.

“It’s very, very different than what we’re accustomed to in NASCAR with our cars not having any of that stuff. You’ve got to make sure if you’re mindful of all that. Here, it’s a completely different pace.”

How different? In NASCAR, drivers are rewarded for managing their brakes at a short track such as Martinsville Speedway, keeping them cool enough to last 500 laps.

In sports cars, it’s virtually the opposite. As Taylor explained, ABS allows drivers to “stand on (the brakes) as hard as you want, and it just does everything for you. It’s like a video game, but it’s hard to wrap your head around being able to brake and not worry about it. (Busch) has driven his whole career locking up brakes and adjusting brake pressures, and now he doesn’t have to, so it’s going to be weird.

“Some guys late in their careers can’t adjust to that because their muscle memory is so in tune.”

Taylor was teamed with Jeff Gordon on the 2017 overall winner at the Rolex 24, and he said the four-time series champion actually drove under the limits of his traction control because he hadn’t used it during a two-decade career.

“ABS is the weirdest thing to drive with; I don’t like it,” Taylor said. “There will be some weird little things that Busch is going to learn that sports car racing has.”


Driver changes: There will be multiple stints for Busch in the car he is sharing with Hawksworth, Parker Chase and Michael de Quesada, which will mean some frenzied swaps behind the wheel.

Though teams often practice how to make a driver change before the race, it’s difficult to simulate the race conditions that necessitate scrambling into a cramped cockpit under duress and then go full bore back on track.

Busch is familiar with accomplishing the switch in a race, having run a four-hour race at Daytona nearly 12 years ago.

“It’s a very choreographed effort,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re ready for and doing. As I’ve already made my practice runs, I’ve been working on where I got to get the belts and everything when I come down, to get ready to get out.”

Kyle Busch debriefs during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes many legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcend into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on Dec. 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”


With so many obstacles in the way of Alonso competing for any other team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best (and essentially his only) option come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” Brown said in a response to a question from NBCSports.com in a Tuesday teleconference. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso, and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after (the Dakar Rally) because he wanted to be very focused on that event. had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda in 2017. He got up to speed quickly, qualifying fifth and leading 27 laps before his Honda failed with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso’s worst days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux pas was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over because of disparaging and critical comments about its engine by Alonso and the team.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what then was known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. To make the deal work, the team had to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

When the Arrow McLaren SP deal was announced on Aug. 9, 2019, Alonso still was attempting to negotiate an Indy 500 deal with Andretti Autosport, and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed, and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no and held firm against doing business with Alonso for the same reasons as with McLaren.

Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver.”


Though it appeared this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized they had been wooing Alonso for several months.

The addition of Hampson, who oversaw a car Bourdais qualified for the Fast Nine in the past two Indy 500s, and a solid test at COTA helped make the case.

“These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump,” Brown said. “There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Said Schmidt: “It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November. We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal.”

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports — the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Having conquered Monaco and Le Mans, Indy remains the final event to master for the Spaniard.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. There are four corners but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

The key to completing the deal was Michael Andretti allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to follow Alonso as his Indy 500 sponsor to Arrow McLaren SP after the deal with Andretti Autosport fell through.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown said, referring to the Virgin Australia Supercars team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them.”

Alonso is just as excited to return at Indy despite last year’s disappointment, gleefully describing the Brickyard’s appeal in his interview with Diffey.

“Definitely. once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500