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Memories of Incredible Finish, IndyCar Test Carry Busch Into Darlington

It’s quite a week for Kurt Busch.

Consider the following:

1 – During the Aaron’s 499 on May 5 at Talladega Superspeedway, Busch was part of a massive late-race wreck where his No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet became airborne before landing on the roof of Ryan Newman’s car. Neither driver was injured in one of the “Big Ones” at Talladega, but it was a ride that NASCAR drivers prefer they never take.

2 – On Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Busch will get a chance to drive a Dallara/Chevrolet IZOD IndyCar Series car for Andretti Autosport, fueling speculation that he is considering doing “The Double” in 2014. Busch would John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart as drivers who have competed in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same day.

3 – Busch returns to the scene of what many consider “NASCAR’s Greatest Finish.” It’s been 10 years since Busch and Ricky Craven fought it out to the very end at Darlington Raceway as the two drivers clawed away at each other in the final laps. Ultimately, Craven was able to get his “Tide Ride” alongside Busch’s Ford (he was driving for team owner Jack Roush at the time) as the two cars came off the final turn at Darlington. Both drivers were able to beat and bang into each other heading to the checkered flag before the nose of Craven’s Pontiac was just inches ahead of the nose of Busch’s Ford at the finish line. The margin of victory of .002 of a second remains the closest finish since NASCAR began using electronic timing and scoring in 1993. It has since been tied at Talladega Superspeedway in 2011.

Just one of those three events would be quite a week for any race driver. But to have all three in the same seven-day period is Busch’s own version of an auto racing triple-header, which culminates with the Southern 500 on Saturday night, May 11 at Darlington.

“The most memorable part has to have been just the way the cars came to the finish line,” Busch said of that memorable day at Darlington when he fell oh-so-short of winning the race. “But to tell the story as many times as I have over the last 10 years, it gets better and better each year, it just puts a smile on your face when you know you gave it your all and the guy that you were racing, a competitor, he gave it his all, and the two of us put on a show. That's what the fans want to see, and at the end of the day, two guys taking the gloves off, going after it and producing such a solid finish, I think we both knew right away we were part of something special.”

Craven has since climbed out of the cockpit and is now an acclaimed commentator for ESPN. But 10 years ago, he was a race driver. The Darlington win served as his signature victory.

“I have to say that when I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington,” Craven said Tuesday. “It was absolutely that important, and the competitors that have competed at Darlington, they understand it's different than anyplace we compete. It tests you in a way that other tracks don't test you. The race has become much bigger to me than just the trophy. It wasn't about on that day, it wasn't about being a fan of mine, it wasn't necessarily about being a fan of Kurt, it was really about being a fan of racing, because since I've retired, it seems as though it's all that anybody wants to talk about when I cross paths with them.

“What's important to me, and maybe I hadn't expressed it enough, but I want to express it right off the top, is Kurt and I, like most competitors, we test each other every week, every seven days, and it's not that important to be friends. You know, as competitors, it's just not that important. But this race, this one day, has definitely brought Kurt and I together as friends, and I think that's kind of unique, and it needs to be acknowledged.”

Craven is from Maine and compares Darlington Raceway to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. Busch grew up in Chicago before his family moved to Las Vegas and prefers to compare Darlington to Wrigley Field, home of the “Loveable Losers” – the Chicago Cubs.

At the time it was built, track owner Harold Brasington wanted Darlington Raceway to be the “Indianapolis of the South.” It was the South’s first superspeedway and remains an iconic venue on the NASCAR schedule.

On Thursday, Busch gets a chance to run an Indy car at the track where Indy-car racing was born – the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It's always tough when you wreck and go out in a blaze of glory like that at Talladega,” Busch said. “The only way to get back in the groove is jump back on your horse and go again. This week I have a unique opportunity to test with Andretti Autosport and drive at Indianapolis in the month of May in an Indy car. This is an experience of a lifetime, and we'll see what happens from Thursday. I'm really excited about it.

“And then on Friday jumping in the car at Darlington to go hammer down, it's going to be a fast-paced qualifying run, but then we have to focus on the full 400 miles and put ourselves in position at the end so that, yes, hopefully there's a good show like it was with Craven and I 10 years ago. But I want to be on the .002-of-the-second side ahead this time and bring home the trophy for the Furniture Row guys.”

2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Busch will take the wheel of the Andretti Autosport Indy car just two days before practice begins for the 97th Indianapolis 500.

But racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t new to Busch. He has competed in 12 Brickyard 400s with a high of fifth place in his first race at the 2.5-mile oval in 2001. That remains his only top-five and one of his four top-10 finishes at Indianapolis. His last top-10 was a 10th in 2010. He finished 21st in 2011 and 36th last July.

Racing a high-speed, open-wheel, open-cockpit race car around the “World’s Greatest Race Course” may be just what Busch needs to forget about his “Flying Circus” ride last Sunday at Talladega.

“I was in the Darlington frame of mind with this being the 10-year anniversary … I got lucky that Ryan Newman was in the position he was in to save my car from multiple barrel rolls,” Busch said. “When I reviewed the tape, I was in the mode of this barrel roll is going to last from Talladega to Georgia. I mean, it was going to be a long barrel roll. But Ryan Newman was in the right place at the right time to help me settle back onto the track and not be as big of a wreck as it could have been.

“I’m just an innocent bystander, wrong place at the wrong time. There's nobody to blame. I can't even blame NASCAR for it. It's just when it's a free-for-all like that at the end of the race, you have to expect bumping and grinding.”

But there will be plenty of bumping and grinding Saturday night at Darlington Raceway during the Southern 500. Not only do the drivers lean on each other through the tight turns of the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, they sometimes lean on the wall to find the fast way around the track.

Busch’s Furniture Row team is a former winner at Darlington with Regan Smith scoring his only career Cup win in the 2011 Southern 500.

“I'm really pumped up about this weekend,” Busch said. “Drivers can say that each week, but with Furniture Row's win there, with my hunger to try to win at Darlington and get those .002 of a second back, it's going to be a good weekend, I really feel it.

“Our sport saw a tremendous amount of growth from the mid-‘90s to the mid-2000s, and to have Darlington survive the storm, it shows its strength all on its own on how unique it is. And to be the Southern 500, it ranks more important than the other tracks that have fallen to the wayside. Even though Rockingham is close geographically, it put on spectacular races, North Wilkesboro, a track that not a lot of people know about, it put on great short-track races that tested the drivers' ability to save their tires and the tire management role.

“Darlington, its first race, the winner was the tortoise. He took the approach on just running laps and he wasn't the fastest car, but he had the least amount of pit stops.”

That’s the same approach Ray Harroun took to win the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. He calculated the proper speed he could run without changing tires and pitted for fuel only, which allowed him to finish the 500 Mile Race ahead of any other driver that day.

It was the historic beginning of the Indianapolis 500. And what Busch and Craven did at Darlington 10 years ago remains a historic day for NASCAR.

“I think that day it was just something special, and it was two men that gave everything they were worth,” Busch said. “If there was a loser, it was fine, because I gave it everything I had. I've been in some epic battles over the years, good and bad, indifferent. I've come out on top of a Nationwide race with Robby Gordon at Watkins Glen where it was definitely a gloves-off moment, and the two of us were able to shake hands and smile about it afterward, not as much as what Craven and I did with each other.

“But I've always had this sense of – or a feeling of when two drivers are toe to toe and they give it everything they've got that there's that showmanship side. There's the entertainment side that is valued in our sport, sometimes more so than the actual competition side. But usually it's the competition that bleeds through, and two guys are upset with each other and NASCAR drivers are like elephants; we don't forget.

“But more times than not, at the end of the day, I've got respect for the guy that I beat or that beat me, and it was just a genuine, honest competition.”

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