It isn’t often that the No. 12 Pro Stock qualifier at an NHRA event is called to the media center for an interview, but then again, it isn’t often that the No. 12 qualifier is a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion with a legion of fans across the globe. Such is the life of Kurt Busch, who was far more than a sideshow as he made his Professional drag racing debut at the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals.
Busch had every right to feel good about his weekend in Gainesville as he not only qualified his Allen Johnson-powered Shell Pennzoil Dodge in the ultra-tough field, but he also gave Erica Enders a run for her money in a narrow 6.53 to 6.54 opening-round loss.
“All in all, this was a great experience,” said Busch. “The whole goal was to put ourselves in a position to win, and we did just that. The car was set up well, and I made the best run that I’ve made through all of testing and qualifying. We can leave here with our heads held high.”
Coming into the Gainesville race, Busch was realistic about his chances for success, fully realizing that he’d be going head to head with a stacked field of drivers, all of whom had more experience than he did. During Friday’s qualifying, Busch admittedly struggled, losing one round when the car spun the tires badly just off the starting line and forfeiting another when he was timed out on the starting line.
“Friday was very disappointing to say the least,” said Busch. “Actually, it was a disaster. “Nothing went right, and it was pretty much all my fault. On the first run, I had to be the first one out because I don’t have any points, and the car spun in the left lane as soon as I let the clutch out. The second run, I had a problem backing the car up after the burnout. I had to stop and push the clutch in and then put the shifter back into reverse. I just got behind, and I didn’t get staged in time, and we lost that run. It was frustrating, but I also knew we still had a good car and that we were going to get two more chances to qualify on Saturday.”
As Busch predicted, the track continued to yield competitive elapsed times Saturday, and he slipped into the field with a 12th-best 6.53, setting up a round-one match against Enders and her ZaZa Energy Cobalt.
“We had a much better day on Saturday,” Busch noted, breathing a sigh of relief when he realized that he would not be bumped from the sport’s second-quickest Pro Stock field. “That [6.53] run gave me a lot of confidence. We knew that the morning session on Saturday would be the key. Mark Ingersoll gave me the most confidence, and the car launched solid. I hit my shift points, and it hooked up. If I had done a perfect job, it might have been 6.51. The amazing thing is that I ran four-hundredths off the pole, and I was 12th. If I’m four-hundredths behind the pole in NASCAR, I’m probably on the outside front row. It just shows you how competitive this sport is. It really is a game of inches.”
After qualifying, Busch returned to the Gainesville Raceway media center for what seemed like the umpteenth time and faced the members of the media, patiently answering all questions. As much as he tried to be “just another racer,” he acknowledged that it was next to impossible given his status and popularity. When asked about racing Enders in round one, Busch wasn’t fazed by the very real possibility of losing to a female racer.
“I don’t care who I’m paired with; it doesn’t matter,” said Busch. “I know she was P1 [low qualifier] in Pomona. She will give it her best, and we’re going to give it our best. If I get beat, I’m prepared for a razzing in Bristol next week. It is an interesting scenario any way you look at it.”
Given his extensive NASCAR experience, Busch appeared relaxed on race day, even as he watched Allen Johnson and Kurt Johnson, the drivers ahead of him in the left lane, not make it to the finish line under power. Despite initial concerns over his lack of side-by-side drag racing experience, Busch acquitted himself well with a .049 reaction time that was trumped slightly by Enders’ .021. Downtrack, Enders maintained her lead and ended Busch’s dream weekend.
“This has been such a learning curve; it’s just like my first year in Cup racing,” Busch said. “I still feel like I did it the right way. I wanted to cut a .02 light, but I got a .049, and that wasn’t too bad. The problem was she got a .02. Still, we had the best graph we had all weekend. I hit all the shift points, and that was the best run I’ve made counting all the passes I made in testing. If you count my reaction time and my e.t., I would have won about half of the rounds in Pro Stock, just not that one. It was a respectable loss, no matter who it was against, so I don’t think I’ll hear too much grief next weekend in Bristol.”
Afterward, Busch addressed his future in drag racing. The next open weekend in his hectic Sprint Cup schedule that coincides with an NHRA Full Throttle race is during the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals in Denver.
“Yes, I want to do this again, and Denver is a definite possibility,” he said. “The problem is that we’re getting close to the NASCAR [Chase for the Cup] cutoff, so I might need to focus on that. It all depends on how the rest of the year goes. Time will tell. I can say that what I really enjoy about drag racing is the adrenaline that goes with every pass; it’s like walking the plank each time. I also enjoy the open paddock where we can interact with the fans. That was a lot of fun.”