By Lars Anderson
The van rolled through the South Florida darkness, the champagne-soaked NASCAR driver sitting in the back seat. It was the fall of 2004 and hours earlier Kurt Busch had won his first and only Sprint Cup title. But as he looked back over his shoulder at the glimmering floodlights illuminating Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of his greatest career triumph, Busch was quintessential Busch: prickly, on edge and still feeling as if the world was hurling sharpened spears at him.
"Maybe now I'll finally get just a little damn respect," he said back then, as the van cruised away from the track. "I know I'm different than every other driver, coming from Las Vegas with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I don't do the right things sometimes and act the right way. But do I care what other people think of me? Not really. I'm going to be in your face and keep charging."
A decade later, Busch, 35, hasn't fundamentally changed. No doubt, a lot of words will be written this weekend about how Busch -- who on Sunday will become the fourth driver in history to attempt the motorsports double of competing in both the Indianapolis 500 and, later that evening, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- has finally grown up and mellowed with age. The storyline du jour will be that his newfound maturity has fostered this quest to complete all 1,100 miles on Sunday. It's a teed-up, easy narrative -- and a flawed one.
"Am I different than I was 10 years ago?" Busch said this past winter, repeating a reporter's question. "In some ways I am, like with relationships in my personal life. But at the track my fire inside of me is raging like it always has. I want to win now more than ever, and I'll do whatever it takes." He paused a few beats. "Whatever it takes."
Forget Danica and Dale, Tony Stewart and six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson; it is Busch and his roiling emotions who is the most compelling driver in America today. In a sport that is absolutely starving for attention -- NASCAR's TV ratings are down almost 50 percent from when Busch won the title in 2004 and are still sliding this year -- Busch is often a one-man carnival act. He has a rich, textured history of being on the only driver in the sport to seriously take on Jimmie Johnson. He's not shy about blasting his own team (this snippet from 2011 is precious). And his rant at ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch in 2011 belongs in the meltdown Hall of Fame.
So yes, in the heat of the moment, he can be utterly difficult to deal with (just ask the assembly line of crew chiefs and PR people who have worked for him over the years), but at least he's not one of the bland corporate mouthpieces who populate the garage and are a big reason why NASCAR's relevance has faded. Busch can't help but reveal his true self, for better or worse, which makes him a reporter's dream, like a post-game Bo Pelini or an any-day-of-the-week Bobby Bowden. And here's the thing I've learned about Kurt in the decade I've known him: The more pissed off he is, and the more he believes that the pitchforks and torches are gathering outside of his garage, the faster he usually runs on the track.
Busch has been fired by two A-list organizations because of his boorish behavior: Roush Fenway Racing in 2005 and Team Penske in 2011. But he revived his career last season at Furniture Row Racing, an underfunded, single-car team that in 199 starts had only three top-five finishes. His career at a crossroads, Busch had arguably his most impressive season in a stock car in 2013. He had 11 top-five finishes, led more laps (448) than Kevin Harvick (who finished third in the final standings) and became the first driver from a single-car team to ever make the Chase. The performance illustrated the force of his personality on the team, how his acid tongue and high expectations lifted an entire organization.
Last fall Busch visited the Charlotte home of Tony Stewart, who was recuperating from a broken leg. The two kindred racing spirits talked for hours, and Busch eventually asked Stewart to give him a ride at Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014. Stewart agreed, and now Busch already has rewarded his faith by essentially clinching a spot in the Chase with his win at Martinsville Speedway on March 30, which was his 25th career victory of his 14-year Cup career.
Of the three previous drivers to attempt the double of the Indy 500 and the Coke 600 -- John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Stewart -- Stewart has had the most success. In 1999 Stewart, who won the Indy Racing League championship in '97, finished ninth in the 500 and fourth at Charlotte. Two years later, he became the first driver to complete all 1,100 miles of both events, coming in sixth in Indy and third in the 600. In each attempt Stewart battled dehydration and cramps.
Unlike his boss, Busch has zero race experience in an Indy car, which is about half the weight of a stock car (1,500 pounds vs. 3,200) and drives like a Ferrari compared to the tanks in the NASCAR races. Busch qualified 12th for the 500 last Saturday and Sunday, competing in the Sprint Cup All-Star Race in between on Saturday night. After a pit crew member left a lug nut loose and cost him five about five seconds on pit road, Busch couldn't stop himself from taking a swipe at his team, wondering aloud to reporters if he shouldn't have just stayed in Indy. A mellowed man?
On Monday in practice at the Brickyard, he lost control of his Andretti Autosport machine without being touched by another car and smashed violently into the wall at over 220 mph. He was tricked by the wind and the aerodynamics of the rear-wing. "I was starting to feel comfortable," he said after he walked away from the smoking wreckage. "That's when I made the mistake of just letting my guard down. With an Indy car you have to be on edge. You have to keep track of where you are at all times and [monitor] the adjustments in the car."
To prepare for the physical demands of starting the 500 at 12:12 p.m. ET and the 600 at 6:15 p.m. ET, Busch will load up on carbs -- oatmeal, salmon and potatoes. He'll travel the 400 miles between tracks on a private jet with a doctor and nurse, who will give him fluids and vitamins on the 90-minute flight.
Why is Busch doing this? Simply because he wants to make history and beat Stewart's combined average finish of 4.5 in 2001. That will be tall mountain to climb, given his lack of seat time at Indy. But for one day, Busch will own motor sports in America.
And he's worth watching, this all-or-nothing driver who is capable of magic one lap and a category-five meltdown the next. If racing is indeed a "show," as they often say in the garages of NASCAR and IndyCar, then there is no one better equipped to play the role of the protagonist on Memorial Day weekend than this unpredictable, unconventional driver who calls himself The Outlaw.
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Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.