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Ben Smith

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Kurt Busch

NASCAR star talks about qualifying for Indy 500, and doing "The Double."

Busch tries to pace himself for double

“It’s a new world”

Kurt Busch

INDIANAPOLIS – It hit him Saturday night, going back to Charlotte again, going back to that suddenly foreign pile of Detroit muscle. He popped the clutch, and 3,600 pounds of fender-mobile just sat there for a bit. He rolled the thing out there, and every bump, every shake, rattle and roll felt … well, wrong, somehow.

“With a NASCAR car, you’ve got to let the movement happen before you adjust to it,” Kurt Busch explained Sunday, sounding more bemused than irritated. “You’ve got to muscle those cars, but you’ve got to muscle them after you feel that movement.”

And that of course is not what you do here, 575 miles north, in a rocket ship that has as much in common with the fender-mobile as a wombat has with a bowling ball. One is NASCAR, the other is NASA. One goes, and the other, you know, really goes.

And so here on Sunday was Busch, really going. He’d put up a nice number in whatever Saturday was (Pre-qualifying? Kinda-sorta qualifying?) and then he hopped a plane to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the NASCAR All-Star race, and now he was at Indy again, standing in the bright sunlight of a blue-sky day, talking about a 230.782 qualifying run on a day when it seemed everyone was putting up 230 mph runs.

“Mission accomplished,” said Busch, who’ll start on the outside of row four.

And then the questions again, about the differences between NASCAR and IndyCar, about what it’s going to be like to drive 500 miles in a rocket ship at Indy next Sunday afternoon and then 600 more in a fender-mobile at Charlotte that night.

“What’s the reaction been (among the NASCAR drivers)?” someone called out.

“Everybody’s curious,” Busch said. “Everybody wants to know what it feels like, what it drives like. It’s hard to describe it in one quick phrase.”

And yet everyone’s looking for the quick phrase, of course. This is the deal of the Double, answering the same questions over and over, saying all the right things (“The overall experience is amazing, to have an open-wheel car from Andretti to go qualify for the Indy 500”), calling some undefined point between Indiana and North Carolina home because nowhere else feels like it this week. And when you’re the first guy who’s felt like that since Tony Stewart in 2001 …

“This whole experience … ,” Busch said Sunday. “You know, like last night, going back to Charlotte, running the All-Star race, I didn’t feel 100 percent. I think I have to pace myself here at 95 percent, because if I try to go 100, my tank will be empty. It’s a long process to make it through this double. You have to take a step back and try to focus in every time you belt in on where you are, what you have to do and go through your racer checklist.”

The checklist this week includes a media day trip to New York on Tuesday, then back to Charlotte for qualifying Thursday, then to Indianapolis for Carb Day on Friday. Then it’s back to Charlotte for practice on Saturday, and then back to Indy for the drop of the green Sunday. Then it’s onto the plane without changing out of his racing suit to make it back to Charlotte in time for the drop of the green there.

“Each day is a lesson,” Busch said this weekend. “The open-cockpit feel is the first thing, and then trusting the downforce is the next thing. Running by myself wide open was another step, and then getting into traffic was another step.”

And now the next, best step.

“We’ll zone in for 500 miles here, and then 600 miles down south,” Busch said Sunday. “Let’s do it.”

Why not?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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