DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Four laps in, the green-and-yellow race car moved into the lead. And the driver inside the vehicle delivered his line right on cue.
"I'm dropping the hammer!" Kurt Busch shouted.
Busch and his team reenacted movie scenes over the radio, wore throwback uniforms complete with mesh-back ball caps, and even ate ice cream sandwiches during a caution period midway through the race. Busch and Phoenix Racing made the most of their paint scheme inspired by "Days of Thunder," the 1990 cult classic starring Tom Cruise as a NASCAR driver, and nearly delivered a Hollywood ending on equal with that of the film.
Ultimately, Busch finished fourth in Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway, losing his drafting partner on the final restart before hooking up with Elliott Sadler as the field rushed toward the checkered flag. But coming up just short of a repeat victory -- Busch won the same event last year with the same organization -- clearly didn't detract from the enjoyment taken in the process.
"It was a lot of fun," Busch said on pit road after the race. "I almost had to smack myself and go, 'Remember, this is a race, and keep this serious.' But we gave ourselves enough time to zone into what the focus needed to be with the car, and then to zone out and have some fun. It was just great to have the banter back and forth, and even have Dr. Lewicki come on and give me advice."
That would be Busch's girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, saying a few lines uttered by the Nicole Kidman character in the film. Driscoll is also president of the Armed Forces Foundation, which used the paint scheme to raise awareness of brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome, conditions suffered by returning service members as well as two injured drivers in the movie.
But for the most part, the atmosphere over team radio was jovial and loose. Spotter Steve Barkdoll referred to Busch as "Cole Trickle" -- the character played by Cruise -- from the very beginning, and crew chief Nick Harrison exchanged famous lines from the film with his driver on a regular basis.
"Harry, we're not going any faster!" Busch intoned at one point. "Everybody else is going slower!"
Harrison, voicing the lines of fictional crew chief Harry Hogge, was up to the task. "No, he didn't slam you, he didn't bump you, he didn't nudge you," he said later. "He rubbed you. And rubbin', son, is racin.'"
Much of this while the race was ongoing, mind you.
Turns out both Busch and Harrison had cheat sheets with some lines from the film scribbled down. "But most of it," Busch added, "was from the love of the movie."
Added Harrison: "We studied a little, but we still had cheat sheets. We're racers, we're not actors. But it was fun to try to act like one."
The endeavor was Busch's idea, pulled off with the aid of Rick Hendrick, who supplies James Finch's Phoenix team with engines, and also owns the City Chevrolet dealership in Charlotte -- the sponsor of Trickle's race car in the movie. Hendrick gave his OK for the logos to be used, and Busch and Driscoll sprung for throwback uniforms. The Armed Forces Foundation brought ice cream sandwiches packed in dry ice, so team members could enjoy a mid-race snack just like the characters do in the film.
There was a race to try and win, and Busch was a player for much of the night. He had good luck drafting earlier in the event with younger brother Kyle -- whose Camping World Truck Series nickname, Rowdy, also comes from a character in the film -- and eventual winner Matt Kenseth. Under a red flag for a large accident that knocked the wind out of driver Jason White, the No. 1 team planned to draft with Nationwide Series leader Regan Smith.
It didn't work out. "Everybody made plans under the red flag the way (NASCAR) called the lineup out, and then they changed it come to one to go. So we kind of lost our partner who we wanted to run with," Harrison said. "We still had a shot to get up there and had a good strong run, fourth, and had a lot of fun with the whole program. We've run all three plate races with Kurt this year, and had shots to win all of them."
Potential tandems with Justin Allgaier and Kyle Larson didn't work out either. So Busch found Sadler, a Nationwide regular whom he pushed to not only third place, but also a $100,000 bonus under the circuit's Dash 4 Cash program.
"I was by myself as we crossed the white," Sadler said. "? I look and I see ol' Cole Trickle coming. ? He did a great job. He pushed me straight, and we were able to stay connected, because we were three-wide, and make it back to the start-finish line."
In the movie, of course, Trickle wins the big Daytona race in the end. There was no such Hollywood ending for the No. 1 team Saturday night, but it was also difficult to find any real disappointment, either.
"You win some, you lose some," Harrison said. "We still ran strong all night, and I got to eat ice cream on TV. It was a lot of fun, a lot of laughs. You don't get to have a lot of fun as hard as we work and as much as we travel these days. But running the 'Days of Thunder' paint scheme and Mr. Hendrick and Finch letting us do it, and having Cole Trickle behind the wheel and me getting to be Harry, it was a lot of fun."
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