Ryan: How Kyle Busch found the brighter side in a Daytona sports car

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch admittedly isn’t a morning person but even being jolted from a deep slumber by someone pounding his motorhome door at 5 a.m. couldn’t ruin this Sunday drive.

“They couldn’t wake us up,” the two-time NASCAR Cup champion said, flashing one of many smiles in explaining why he nearly was late to his third time behind the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 in his Rolex 24 debut. “I was out. Like gone.”

He threw on a firesuit, grabbed a quick bite to eat and hopped back in his new wheels for a bleary-eyed triple stint of more than two hours (“probably a Cup race in my mind”), his longest drive of the race.

“When I got in the car, lap times weren’t quite great,” he said. “My second and third stint times were fine once I got my eyes open and everything.”

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It was easy for Busch to snap back to attention because he clearly was enjoying himself this weekend as he rarely has a professional race car driver on the 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

Usually, happiness is never further away than victory lane for the mercurial star whose standoffish petulance after second-place finishes is infamous.

But on the way to a 26th-place finish (ninth in class) after his team battled brake problems and handling issues in IMSA’s season opener, Busch found significant joy.

“I try to relish the moment,” he said. “Have some fun with it. We had a lot of fun.”

From the moment he arrived for the Roar before the Rolex test session Jan. 3, Busch seemed to be savoring the new experience with the swagger that makes him one of NASCAR’s most popular (if not polarizing) stars.

During a team dinner three weeks ago, he alternately held sway over a group of reporters, teammates and Lexus executives while keeping them in stitches with jokes about the potency of energy drinks, team owners who hadn’t paid him and the fact that he’d be getting lapped on a regular basis while racing in GTD against three other faster divisions.

Being slow is usually not a laughing matter for Kyle Busch, which is what made his Rolex 24 mood so striking.

“The whole month of January, I don’t remember having this kind of experience with Kyle,” said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, who spearheaded the deal to put Busch in the race with AIM Vasser Sullivan. “He was loose and enjoying himself. As a human being, I was happy to see that in him because of the success that he’s enjoyed over his career. You want, just on a personal level, for him to be happy, and it was fun to see that come through.”

Though he won his second title in NASCAR’s premier series, the 2019 season wasn’t always so happy for Busch. He struggled to adapt to a lower-horsepower, higher-downforce package that often left him frustrated while also wrestling with some personal difficulties as his wife Samantha struggled with infertility.

A new year with a new ride with an acceleration and responsiveness missing from his Cup car last year might have helped ameliorate some of that lassitude.

“I’m thinking it’s a little precursor to what’s going to happen in 2021 with the NASCAR cars,” Busch said, referring to the NextGen car that will make its Cup debut with an independent rear suspension, sequential shifting and a flat-bottom floor among its new characteristics. “So this got me a little taste of our medicine maybe of what we’re going to see in 2021 of the new car.”

It’s medicine that might not require the heaping spoonfuls of sugar that he needed to choke down the aggravation last season in Cup while soldiering on to a hard-fought championship. But it’s reductive to suggest that Busch suddenly will become as cheery in NASCAR as he has been this month because a cooler, sleeker ride is on the way.

His Rolex 24 journey, though, could lead him from Daytona to a very happy place – namely the premier prototype division of sports cars and possibly the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

While Busch wouldn’t commit to returning next year with the Lexus in the GTD (“Too soon to say; I think I will digest all of this”), he hinted many times throughout the past month that he desperately wanted to race a DPI.

“Hopefully there’s some things that Toyota’s got up their sleeve as to what kind of class and what kind of cars they want to run over here in the next few years,” Busch said during an interview on the NASCAR on NBC Pit Box. “I would certainly be all hands on deck to go for an overall win.”

Kyle Busch pulled a double-stint in the No. 14 Lexus shortly after midnight Sunday.

Wilson said there is no chance Toyota will have a prototype at the Rolex 24 next year. But he wouldn’t rule out the possibility in the near future, particularly with last Friday’s announcement that will allow crossover of the premier classes that race at Daytona and the world’s most famous endurance race.

He expects Busch will be making many phone calls to high-level executives at Toyota Motor North American headquarters in Plano, Texas, about building a prototype.

“Kyle’s been wearing us out to get to France,” Wilson said. “Just like he’s made no bones about the fact that he wants to go to the Indy 500. He’s been pleading his case to go to Le Mans for about three years. He recognizes that’s one of the crown jewels.”

It exemplifies Busch’s desire to be great by winning events such as Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 (which he nearly raced in 2017) that make his case for being a generational talent and Hall of Fame driver.

But he also holstered that ambition in favor of deference at Daytona, recognizing from the outset that he was the sidekick to lead driver Jack Hawksworth.

“You don’t see Kyle setting aside his ego very often,” Wilson said. “He did for this experience because he recognized at the start that he wasn’t the fastest driver in that car, and that was just refreshing and fun to watch.”

Said AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing co-owner Jimmy Vasser: “He’s won more NASCAR races in the modern day than anybody but it takes a lot of confidence and guts to jump into a discipline that he’d never really done before, and he did it with ease. He was really, really impressive. He was running times of top sports car pros.

“He’s a very serious guy, but he was a joy to have on the team and really added a lot for our people to see how a true professional works. Some people might come in and think they know everything. But he certainly didn’t and showed he knows quite a bit.”

Hawksworth is a Brit who built a bit of a bromance with Busch while helping train him on a driving simulator.

“Kyle’s super switched on,” he said. “The guy is like a sponge. He takes in a lot of information. He’s studying the setup, he’s studying the driving and every aspect of it. He’s been helpful in many elements of the car setup. He’s suggested things when the timing has been right, but at the same time he’s also taken a step back in many ways and let the more experienced guys lead the ship.

“I’m not just saying this to blow smoke up his ass, but he’s been one of the easiest teammates to work with. The guy is obviously demanding of the crew and the equipment, but he’s also respectful of everybody.”

That was evident from Busch’s final stint when he subbed in for an ailing Hawskworth to take the checkered flag on three hours of sleep. He logged more than twice as much time – six hours, 34 minutes — in the car.

“They asked if I would be up for finishing it off, and I said, ‘Sure, why not. Let’s go out here and run it out,’” Busch said. “I was all about just getting the seat time and having fun. It was a cool start.”

And a happy one at that.

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