Putting his reputation on the line and risking embarrassment in front of 40,000 fans and a seven-digit TV audience, NASCAR Sprint Cup star Kurt Busch competed in the highly competitive Pro Stock class at the NHRA Gatornationals, one of the biggest events in drag racing.
When it was over, Busch hadn't won – he didn't even win a round – but he demonstrated beyond a doubt that he can drive a Pro Stock car and that, with a little experience, he could win.
In a rented Dodge Avenger prepared by an all-volunteer crew working alongside Pro Stock vet Allen Johnson's J&J Racing team, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion lost in the opening round of Pro Stock eliminations – but not by much. By that point, he'd already accomplished his stated goal: he qualified. There are no provisionals in drag racing; if you don't qualify on Friday or Saturday, you don't race on Sunday.
“Drag racing takes a whole different kind of focus,” says Busch, whose daily drive is the No. 22 Penske Racing Shell Dodge in the Sprint Cup. “In Cup racing, you can feel race time getting closer, and it's a four-hour marathon, so you keep yourself at a level that you know you can maintain. Here, you never know exactly when you're going to run. You know what the schedule is, but there can always be delays from the cars in front of you. Then all of a sudden, it's time to go, and you have to perform.
“When you finally do get up there, you'd better get everything out of that car. It's, ‘Do it right, and do it right now,' because you only get one chance. In NASCAR, if you miss your line a little, you have 499 more chances to get it right!”
Busch's first qualifying attempt was a disappointing 19sec shutoff run – not that he did anything wrong. His Shell-backed Avenger shook violently as soon as he dumped the clutch; there was nothing he could have done. “But then I made my first mistake,” he adds. “I should have eased back into the throttle so that at least I'd have the best e.t. of all the drivers who had to shut off, and I'd have run farther back in the next session.”
In that next session, Busch did something that's likely never happened in the 41-year history of Pro Stock: Instead of focusing on the staged lights at the top of the Tree, he cranked his head 90 degrees to the right and stared at the other driver, waiting for him to roll in first. There he was, a 22-time winner in America's biggest racing series, but he didn't know one of the first rules of his new sport: never take your eye off the Tree.
“I committed the cardinal sin,” says Busch, who possessed exactly one race of prior drag racing experience – last year's Gatornationals, where he competed in a sportsman division called Super Gas. “It was a rookie mistake. I looked over at Vince [Nobile]'s car, just like I would in NASCAR. I was thinking, ‘Man, are you ever going to stage?' Then I looked back at the Tree, saw that he was already in, and I knew right then that I was done.”
Busch's run was disqualified – he didn't even get a time. Now under even more intense scrutiny, he laid down a solid 6.53 at 211mph Saturday morning that guaranteed his place in the field. On his final qualifying attempt, in lesser conditions that afternoon, he managed a consistent 6.55. “On the 6.53, I missed the 1-2 shift a little – it comes really fast – and on the 6.55, I put the motor on the rev-limiter chip before the other guy even staged,” he says. “But Sunday morning in eliminations, I made the best run I've ever made.”