There are those moments when those who consider themselves part of the NASCAR Nation come together as one. It happens each weekend during the long NASCAR season as we follow our favorite driver and hope they are in victory lane on Sunday afternoon; or when there is some sort of controversy, such as an on-track dust up between drivers or a major rule change from NASCAR. Each chooses a side, one driver or the other, or the new rule is great or dumb. Issues that polarize the masses, divide this, what we call, the NASCAR Nation.
Sunday was different.
As the NASCAR Sprint Cup series prepared to run its longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, everyone’s attention was focused on a historic track hundreds of miles away in the center of Indiana. NASCAR visits the Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a season, but that’s not the biggest race there. The Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend is, and to most will always be, the biggest motorsports event in America.
On the day leading up to the 600, the Indy 500 always draws the attention of those in the NASCAR Nation; all the TVs around the Charlotte Motor Speedway are tuned to the race, and the huge screen along the backstretch is showing the open wheelers racing in the big race. Most years however the Indy 500 is nothing more than background noise, interesting, fun to watch, but not really that important in the world of stock car auto racing.
A few months ago when Kurt Busch announced he would follow in the footsteps of John Andretti, Robby Gordon and his boss Tony Stewart, and attempt motor racings double, racing in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, a spark of interest was ignited.
So this past Sunday the NASCAR Nation had more reason to watch the Indy 500 than in the past few years. Early in the day, after Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the last time and the race got the green flag, there was little more than a buzz. People went about their normal pre-race day at Charlotte; PR people ushered their drivers to appearances, crews prepped cars and set up pit stalls; fans tailgated and waited for the green flag. As the Indy 500 raced on, people would ask each other “Where’s Kurt?”. 15th, came the answer. Busch later dropped to the back of the pack and was 20th for a good portion of the 500 miles. But as the laps wound down, Busch began to move up. “He’s 13th”, came the answer.
Then as the Indy 500 reached its final stages the answers as to where Kurt was running became a little more excited. “He just broke into the top 10”, “He’s up to 8th!” Soon came the final 20 laps and everyone seemed to stop what they were doing and turn their attention towards the nearest TV. The normal loud hubbub in the crowded media center quieted. Crews stopped what they were doing; fans grew a little quieter and turned their gaze to the big screen along the backstretch. The final 10 laps featured a horrible crash among several of the frontrunners followed by a red flag period that set up a dash to the finish. Ryan Hunter-Reay pulled off a dramatic pass on Helio Castroneves with 3 laps left and held off the three time Indy 500 winner to score his first win Indy 500 win.
The NASCAR Nation watched the thrilling finish, but most of the attention was further back: Kurt Busch had finished sixth. An astonishing feat considering that prior to Sunday Busch had never raced in an open wheel event in his life. Not only did he do so Sunday, he held his own against some of the best drivers the IndyCar Series has to offer, and in their biggest race.
A few hours later a helicopter interrupted the pre-race activities at Charlotte Motor Speedway as it landed on the frontstretch grass. Kurt Busch climbed out at 4:50 p.m. and was greeted by the roar of the crowd. The driver who elicits his share of boos each week heard none Sunday. The NASCAR Nation collectively cheered the driver who had just impressed several hundred thousand fans at Indy and millions watching on TV around the world by finishing sixth in his rookie drive. Busch waved, hi-fived fans and no doubt enjoyed the cheers as he slowly made his way behind the stage to get ready for driver introductions. Photos taken behind the stage showed him slumped on a bench looking a bit frayed around the edges, rightfully so perhaps, but still smiling.
Busch’s attempt to run both races in full, 1100 miles in all, came up short. The engine in his Chevy expired on lap 275 ending his night. He never really had a chance to win the 600 though; shock problems on the car slowed him earlier, but to have at least completed the 1100 miles would have put icing on a very sweet cake. Instead he ended his day completing 906.5 miles.
And while he may have come up short in his quest to run the entire 1100 miles, Busch earned the respect of fans from IndyCar and NASCAR as well as his competitors.
“He did an awesome job,” Coca-Cola 600 winner and six time champion Jimmie Johnson said after celebrating his win Sunday night. (He) made us all really proud in the garage area watching. Hats off to him.”
Indeed Kurt Busch did an awesome job. For those in the NASCAR Nation it was akin to sending a kid out into the world and watching him do well; win the science fair, graduate from college, or score the winning touchdown during a Friday night high school football game.
“Today is a memory I’ll have forever,” Busch said before leaving Charlotte Sunday night. “It was a challenge I put forth for myself. I enjoyed it. I soaked it all in up North. I loved racing up in Indy in front of all the Indiana natives and the Hoosiers. They love their speedway up there. That speedway loves them. That’s what I really saw out of that track today. There was a grand stage to stand on and represent NASCAR.”
Represent NASCAR is something Kurt Busch did Sunday, and in the end did quite well. Just like our kid getting a ribbon at the science fair, or the game ball, all of NASCAR felt the pride that can only come from seeing one of its own do well outside the familiar confines of stock car auto racing.
Kurt Busch did NASCAR proud and in the end made us all smile.