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CUP: Weekend Will Be A Drag For Busch

NASCAR champion Kurt Busch will spend the first off-weekend of the 2010 Sprint Cup season getting his racing career straightened out.

Busch, winner of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the 2004 Cup champion, will revisit his drag racing roots during the 41st annual Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals beginning Thursday at historic Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.

Driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for Penske Racing, Busch will wheel his rebuilt 1970 Dodge Challenger against a field of between 70 and 90 veteran Super Gas (9.90-second) quarter-mile racers. Busch will make a minimum of three “time trial” passes on Thursday, and the field will return Friday morning to pair-off and begin eliminations.

“Next weekend is going to be about having some fun, but yet putting together a serious effort,” Busch said after scoring the 21st victory of his NASCAR career Sunday at AMS. “Being a car-owner, I guess, and understanding all the ins-and-outs of putting together a car to go drag racing with, it’s been fun, a challenge. (Sunday) I got to lean on some of the experience I’ve been through in Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School, to get that forward bite right out of the box. On all these restarts, I felt like we had the right grip. We weren’t getting a lot of tire slip. That’s what it’s going to take for me at the Gatornationals, to have everything go our way.

“Just having an off-week, enjoying a great sponsor with Miller Lite, the camaraderie with the guys on my drag car, volunteers – I’m excited about the week.”

Super Gas is one of seven Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series (LODRS) classes that will be contested at the Gatornationals. The LODRS is National Hot Rod Association’s Sportsman series. As such, it is home to a wide variety of racers ranging from hobbyists to highly-competitive, highly-invested teams to young drivers with aspirations of moving into the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.

Busch earned his NHRA Super Gas license aboard a 180-mph Top Sportsman-style Ford Mustang at zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C., with instructor Roy Hill doing the grading. Busch rated himself as a “5” on a scale of 10 in a report on Hill’s Drag Racing School website. “I will say that I feel comfortable enough to get in the car and make some passes,” Busch said on the site.

Busch, a 31-year-old native of Las Vegas, bought this Challenger in 2008 and began getting it into race shape in March 2009. The Mopar is powered by a stroked 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 engine, weighs 3,000 pounds and reportedly cranks out an incredible 1,167 horsepower. Busch termed the Challenger a “multi-personality car,” that is a combination daily driver built to run NHRA Super Gas, as well as National Muscle Car Association and International Hot Rod Association events.

Busch’s fascination with drag racing began in the early 1990s when he met a pair of Las Vegas-based NHRA racers - George Marnell, a Pro Stock driver, and Dave Bush, a Super Comp driver. In addition, Busch became friends with two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon while both were sponsored by Miller Lite.

Among the professional drivers competing this weekend, Dixon (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending event winners. The Gatornationals is the third event of a 23-race schedule.

Cory McClenathan, who scored his career 32nd victory at the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway, is leading Top Fuel in his FRAM Dragster. And 14-time Funny Car champion John Force leads that class after winning the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and a runnerup finish at Firebird in his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang.

Busch got the idea of competing in an NHRA event after participating in the opening night of racing mogul O. Bruton Smith’s state-of-the-sport zMAX Dragway in September 2008. As it turned out, one of the rare off-weekends in the NASCAR schedule coincides with this weekend’s Gatornationals.

“Gainesville is one of the marquee events on the NHRA calendar and it’s a privilege to compete against the best Sportsman racers out there,” said Busch, who is looking forward to the challenges of an environment where he is once again a rookie. “Sportsman racing is no different than any other type of racing _ you need seat time. I spent over 30 hours at Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School (in Sophia, N.C.), and have had two tests in my own Challenger. But that’s nowhere compared to the seat time many of these guys have in their own cars. We’re going to go out there and do our best competing against these talented Sportsman racers.”

Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 7:30 a.m. (ET) on Thursday. Eliminations begin at 7:30 a.m. on Friday.

The Gatornationals has seen some of the most important performance barriers in the history of NHRA broken, including Kenny Bernstein’s legendary first 300 mph pass in Top Fuel in 1992.

Meanwhile, eight Pro Stock racers will simultaneously continue the rain-delayed eliminations from the NHRA Arizona Nationals during Gators qualifying. Four quarterfinal pairings will be featured during Friday’s second Pro Stock session. Two semifinal pairings will be contested during Saturday’s first Pro Stock session, and the final round will be held during the final Pro Stock session, also on Saturday.

Highlighting those pairings is a quarterfinal meeting between defending world champ Mike Edwards, winner of the season-opening Winternationals, and three-time world champ Greg Anderson. Friday’s other pairings are Allen Johnson vs. Jason Line, Ron Krisher vs. Greg Stanfield and Rodger Brogdon vs. Bob Yonke.

Saturday’s semifinals will match the Edwards-Anderson winner vs. the Johnson-Line winner and the Krisher-Stanfield winner vs. the Brogdon-Yonke winner. Times posted for these rescheduled elimination runs also will count toward qualifying for the Gatornationals.

The Gatornationals also will showcase the season-debut of the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Defending world and event champion Arana will attempt to continue his recent success on his Lucas Oil Buell. Arana’s competition will include past PSM champions Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines of the Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod team and Matt Smith, who returns on his own bike, the Al-Anabi Racing Buell.

Others to watch in the two-wheel category include Doug Horne, last year’s rookie phenom; GEICO Powersports Suzuki rider Karen Stoffer; Team Scream’s Craig Treble; two-time U.S. Nationals winner Steve Johnson; Coffman Tank Trucks Buell rider Angie Smith and David Hope, riding the Mohegan Sun Racing Buell.

ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 2 a.m. (ET) on Sunday. That show also will re-air later the same day at 10 a.m. (ET). ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at noon (ET) on Sunday. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage beginning at 6 p.m. (ET) on Sunday.

Gatornationals tickets can be purchased by logging onto www.ticketmaster.com or calling 800-884-NHRA (6472).

John Sturbin covered college sports, baseball as well as the NHL and Dallas Cowboys while working at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He was their fulltime motorsports beat writer from 1995 to 2008.

John can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com