Is Kurt Busch Wise to Race in Both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600?

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Is Kurt Busch Wise to Race in Both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600?
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Even before Kurt Busch was involved in a fiery crash during practice for the Indianapolis 500, there was a question begging to be asked, even if it endangered the feel-good publicity generated by his attempt to double down by running both the Indy 500 and NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, on the same day.

Yes, it's cool, and it should put a few more eyeballs on the two races.

But is it wise?

More specifically, is it safe? Not only for Busch but also for the other drivers who will be competing with him as he attempts to run 1,100 miles in two of auto racing's biggest events over roughly an 11-hour stretch.

The answers, if delivered honestly and truthfully, aren't what Busch or most of the auto racing community would like to hear.

That's because it's not smart, and it's probably not safe either.

Skip Williams/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Kurt Busch, in the No. 41 car, was caught right in the middle of this wreck at Talladega.

It's basically an expensive publicity stunt for a driver who continues to try to rebuild and reshape his image.

You can't blame Busch for trying to do that. His image was in dire need of an extreme makeover following a series of incidents that led to his departure from a high-profile NASCAR ride at what was then known as Penske Racing following the 2012 season.

Busch no doubt was painfully aware that his driving career was at a crossroads at the time. The harsh reality was that had he not embraced Extreme Makeover, NASCAR Edition, Busch was staring at the possibility of never again getting a quality ride—in NASCAR, IndyCar, maybe even in go-karts.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

He's done a remarkable job on the comeback trail in that regard and has been rewarded handsomely for it in terms of opportunities granted: first at the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation in 2013, and now at Stewart-Haas Racing on the NASCAR side and Andretti Autosport on the IndyCar side.

It is not overstating the situation to say that Busch has saved his career.

So why is he risking it all by planning double duty this Sunday? Because he can. And because maybe, just maybe, a strong run in the Indy 500 will give him more career options than he could have ever dreamed of 24 months ago.

He also admitted in an exclusive interview with CNN's Rachel Nichols that it is indeed much ado about generating positive press coverage for himself and his sport.

"There's a lot of publicity, there's the extra excitement value for people to tune in and watch," Busch said in the interview on Unguarded, which will air Friday, May 30, at 10:30 p.m. ET. "You know, the wreck, catching on fire and all that big moment creates the intrigue and the interest. At the end of the day, I'm just a racer."

Make no mistake about this: Busch is a very gifted driver. He narrowly missed being included in the Fast Nine grouping that got to race for the Indy 500 pole before qualifying a respectable 12th, which is somewhat stunning for someone with so little experience on the open-wheel side.

But when he wrecked Monday, hitting the wall hard in Turn 2 at Indy, it was a stark reminder that no matter how talented, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to wheeling these cars that reach speeds upward of 230 miles per hour.

"I was starting to feel comfortable," Busch told reporters after the accident at Indy, via the Sporting News. "That's when I made the mistake of just letting my guard down. Made the mistake of just letting my guard down or settling into that long run-type mentality, whereas with IndyCar you have to be on edge."

He certainly has the rest of the racing world on edge now. Losing control of his car like that in the actual Indy 500 race could take out a good portion of the field and, quite simply, would produce dangerous results not only for himself but several others.

He is not only going to not attempt to run the 500-miler that begins roughly at noon, but he'll then jet to Charlotte, North Carolina, immediately afterward to run a 600-miler that is NASCAR's longest race. The green flag on that race is scheduled to drop at around 6 p.m., and it usually takes about four-and-a-half hours to complete, meaning it will be pushing 11 p.m. when his long day is done.

He admitted during a media session in Charlotte that he was sort of glad he wrecked in practice at Indy because if he hadn't, he likely would have made the same mistake and taken out a whole bunch of folks 50 laps into Sunday's race. But he told Nichols that the risk versus reward is well worth it for him, and he compared himself to a race horse that presumably doesn't know any better.

"To me, it's a dream come true, to be able to live this," Busch said in the Unguarded interview. "And you just put the blinders on. I mean, does California Chrome know that it's going for the Triple Crown? Maybe, maybe not. It's just a matter of just going out there and performing."

Busch is attempting to become the fourth driver to complete this double on the same day. (Donnie Allison once did it when the races were held on successive days.)

Others who have attempted double-duty on same day
Year Driver Indy 500 Finish Coke 600 Finish Miles Completed
1994 John Andretti 10th 36th 820
1999 Tony Stewart 9th 4th 1,090
2001 Tony Stewart 6th 3rd All 1,100
2002 Robby Gordon 8th 16th 1,098
2003 Robby Gordon 22nd 17th 834

Racing-reference.info

John Andretti was the first to do so in 1994, and Robby Gordon the last in 2003. (Gordon attempted it again in 2004, but rain interfered with his plans, as it did on three of the five times he tried it.) Tony Stewart was the most successful in 2001, when he became the only driver to finish on the lead lap of both races, finishing sixth at Indy and third in the Coke 600 to complete all 1,100 miles.

The difference is that Stewart, Gordon and Andretti all had considerably more experience on the open-wheel side when they attempted it.

There also is the matter of the current state of Busch's NASCAR team. He's in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, and despite a win earlier in the season at Martinsville that likely has locked him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup that will determine the 2014 champion, it hasn't been going particularly well for Busch.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Other than his one win, he has only one other quality finish in the first 11 races—a third at Fontana in the event that immediately preceded Martinsville. In fact, in the four races prior to Fontana, his average finish was 30.3. In the five races since Martinsville, his average finish is 31.0.

He currently sits 28th in the Sprint Cup points standings. Wouldn't it behoove him to devote all of his time and energy right now to getting better in the stock car, where he actually earns his living? Can he honestly say he'll be at his absolute best in the Coca-Cola 600, which, by itself, can test even the best-conditioned driver to the limit of his physical endurance?

Once again, if a weary Busch makes a mistake late in the 600, he could endanger not just himself but also plenty of others driving around him at speeds of 200 mph.

It's all enough to make it sink in that the Memorial Day weekend auto racing double down, while interesting, isn't the smartest play for a driver to make. That's especially true for a driver with little experience in one discipline and struggling in his first year with a new team in the other.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all information for this article was obtained first-hand by the writer.

Joe Menzer has written two books about NASCAR and now helps cover auto racing for Fox Sports as well as Bleacher Report, where he also writes about other sports. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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