WADE: Busch Humble In Initial Foray Into Pro Stock World

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kurt Busch, NASCAR’s 2004 champion and current point leader, probably could afford to purchase a Picasso or Renoir original painting.

Instead, hanging prominently on a wall in his lovely home will be a black-and-white printout of the 2011 Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals Pro Stock qualifying order.

“That’s something I’ll put in a frame and put on the wall,” Busch said after qualifying 12th in the 16-car field at the storied National Hot Rod Ass’n race.

“To be able to do this with my group of guys, that self-satisfaction, it’s high up there on the list,” he said.

The only thing topping it this past weekend was his close side-by-side race Sunday against opening-round winner Erica Enders, who set the national speed record at 213.57 miles per hour during qualifying.

Oh, Busch said he knows the “You got beat by a girl” jabs will be coming this weekend at the Jeff Byrd 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway — or well before that.

Busch understood that Enders is an experienced drag racer with her own set of achievements — in a motorsport discipline that barely bats an eyelash at female participation. Although he and Enders already had become acquainted during preseason testing at Bradenton, Fla., he recognized what mattered most. “She was P-1 in Pomona,” he said with a respectful nod.

Enders, who without hesitation on the eve of their match-up had deadpanned, “It doesn’t matter whether he’s Kurt Busch or George Bush,” had just a little more in her Victor Cagnazzi-owned ZaZa Energy Chevy Cobalt than he had in his Shell Dodge Avenger. She won by three-thousandths of a second, with a 6.538-second pass to his 6.541 e.t.

“It was a great experience, to be competitive like we were,” Busch said. “It was a solid burnout. It was a great staging. It was the best [data] graph we produced in all of testing and in all of our rounds here at Gainesville, with our shift marks and everything else. It was the best run we’ve ever put together, and we just came up short.

“This was a weekend I’ll never forget. I feel we can hold our heads high about this,” he said. “To have the opportunity to be out here and to make the field was one accomplishment, and to see our run and see how we produced in that first-round effort, we would have beat half the field, with adding together reaction time and elapsed time. So we put together a solid run.”

Busch defied well-calculated odds. Seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher said Saturday of Busch, “He’s at a very serious disadvantage, because she’s a very good driver and he’s in our world. That doesn’t mean he won’t become great at what he does, but he’s brand new.

“He’s probably going to have a hard time staging, knowing she’s got 700 plans of attack and he’s just sitting there, trying to figure how to roll it in with enough load on the front brakes and the clutch in the right place. It’s a lot of stuff,” he said. “If he does what he knows how to do — just drive the car, make it fun — he’ll do great.”

He did better than expected. And afterward Enders said, “Kurt’s great for the sport. He’s great for Pro Stock, to shed some light on this class that hasn’t gotten a whole lot before. Hopefully he’ll go back and tell his NASCAR buddies how awesome NHRA is and how tough Pro Stock is to drive.”

He will. This brave new world of six-second performance bursts and brutal parity captured Busch’s fancy just as much for its unusually hospitable vibe from both competitors and fans. “It’s like a carnival atmosphere,” he said Sunday after exiting the race. “I want to get a corn dog and a beer, and stick around and watch Pro Stock racing.”

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