‘I’m not the top dog’: Kyle Busch embraces challenges of Rolex 24

Nate Ryan
NBC Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As exacting as any champion in NASCAR history, Kyle Busch will be accepting an unusual level of deference in his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona International Speedway.

He will be sharing the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 with three AIM Vasser Sullivan teammates, which will require compromise on the positioning of seats and pedals (much less the setup).

He will be yielding to the much faster DPI and LMP2 cars on virtually every green-flag lap he makes around the 3.56-mile layout.

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He will be adjusting to a braking system that will require a radical new rethinking of his sublime driving style.

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A two-time Cup champion accustomed to knowing exactly what he wants in a race car will be learning on the fly for the first time in years as a 24-hour sports car rookie.

How will Busch adapt to being in his IMSA team’s supporting cast after often being the driving force behind Joe Gibbs Racing?

By embracing his situation with a humility that often isn’t associated with such a brash and mercurial superstar.

“It’s not hard for me, and I say that because I’m not the top dog,” Busch told NBC Sports. “There’s a top dog that’s way better, way smarter, way more experienced at these cars than I am, so I let Jack kind of take the reins.”

Kyle Busch talks with No. 14 co-owner Jimmy Vasser during the Roar (courtesy of IMSA).
Kyle Busch talks with No. 14 co-owner Jimmy Vasser during the Roar (courtesy of IMSA).

“Jack” is Jack Hawksworth, the IndyCar and sports car veteran who has become Busch’s de-facto driving coach for Daytona. Beginning with an intensive five-hour session in a driving simulator last month at Toyota Racing Development in Salisbury, N.C., Busch constantly has cited Hawksworth’s pointers with being invaluable for getting up to speed.

But the learning curve was evident during the Roar before the Rolex test session when Busch initially was 3 seconds per lap off Hawksworth’s pace.

“I thought he did a good job,” Hawksworth said. “It’s a completely different car from anything he’s driven.”

That didn’t stop Busch’s demanding side from playfully peeking out at one point.

“I’ll prod (Hawkwsorth) a little bit when we he’s like, ‘You need to open up your hands, mate, in order to like get the drive off the corner,’ ” Busch said, affecting a British accent with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Well if the car was better I wouldn’t have to open up my hands so how about me tell them to try to fix it a few things for us and make it a little bit better.’ ”

Striving for greatness is the central thrust of Busch’s desire to race the Rolex 24 (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC on Saturday and includes NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass during the event before concluding from noon – 2 p.m. ET on Sunday on NBC).

He has watched the race draw champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and Formula One (Fernando Alonso) as well as Indianapolis 500 winners (Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay).

“It’s pretty cool to watch the different guys that come from be it IndyCar or NASCAR or even V-8 Super Cars or guys from overseas that come over here and give this race a go,” Busch said. “It means a big deal and means a lot to a lot of guys.”

Here are a few of the more difficult aspects of his transition:

Traffic: While being lapped incessantly, Busch will be relying heavily for help in navigating a track that will be jammed with more than three dozen cars for a full day. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is both the largest (18 of the 38 cars in the field) and slowest of the four classes. The DPI and LMP2 cars will be turning laps that are roughly 9 to 12 seconds faster than Busch’s Lexus, which also will be slightly off the pace of the similar GTLM cars.

Tony Hirschman, his longtime spotter in NASCAR, will be relaying information on the type of cars that are coming and the drivers behind the wheel. A system of lights also can help identify the division.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment, for sure, of being able to know what’s coming, who’s coming, what type of car and trying to figure out all of the little tricks of the trade,” Busch said. “The spotter’s communication is a big deal of where they’re at, how fast they’re gaining, knowing the closing rate and trying to figure that out so you can kind of figure out a spot on the track of where you know you’re going to be clear. I imagine in the race when there’s a heck of a lot of them coming at you in a hurry that it’s going to be a bit trickier.”

Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, who raced in the top division of the Rolex the past seven years, said he always was glad to be driving the faster car while tiptoeing through the GT battles in the middle of the night.

“It’s mayhem,” Taylor said. “They’re glued together half the race. Which he (Busch) used to, but it’s going to be different. He’s got to share the car, it’s 24 hours. It’s so easy to get in the middle without getting caught up in a battle with one guy. Those sorts of things still happen to me after like 10 years of this race. I’ll get caught up in something and realize, “Why am I doing this?”

“He’ll have those same moments of battling someone and say, ‘This doesn’t matter. I need to relax.’ Or else he’ll get caught up in it.”

The No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 during testing (courtesy of IMSA).
The No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

Two sports car veterans with NASCAR experience believe Busch will be fine as long as he has patience and strategy.

Colin Braun, who became a friend of Busch’s while racing often in the Truck and Xfinity series from 2008-11, said stock-car drivers have the skillset to adjust.

“Racing those guys and seeing how good they are on road courses, and the feel they have for the car on the limit is impressive,’ Braun said. “Those guys are superstars, and a guy like Jimmie Johnson showed that many times coming into Grand Am DP cars back in the day. I have no doubt a guy like Kyle is going to be really, really fast. When I first went into NASCAR, being fast wasn’t the issue. It was just the experience.

“A guy like Kyle I don’t think has been passed by eight prototype cars lined up nose to tail while working through the GTLM field, so I think the experience is toughest the thing to gain.”

Andy Lally, a five-time Rolex 24 winner who spent the 2011 season in the NASCAR Cup Series, said “the biggest thing coming from a racing series that races one class of car is that when you’re at Daytona and it’s 24 hours long and you’re interacting with four different races going on at the same time.

“There is definitely a way to strategize getting by and getting people by you to make it efficient so that your lap time is staying consistent. It’s impossible to rail off qualifying laps while Prototypes are coming by while you’re fighting with cars in class. But there’s definitely an efficient way to get it by for both speed and safety.”

Technology: Busch will have some new toys to employ: An antilock braking system (ABS) and traction control, neither of which is available in NASCAR.

It theoretically should allow for much better handling, but it also will require Busch retraining himself to trust a car that is lighter, sleeker and more responsive than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

There’s a lot of driver assist with (sports) cars,” Busch said. “Being able to abuse the heck out of the car and just drive the living snot out of it into the corners, braking as late as you can, as hard as you can, getting right to the ABS limit then trailing your brake and getting ready for the apex and all that sort of stuff.

“It’s very, very different than what we’re accustomed to in NASCAR with our cars not having any of that stuff. You’ve got to make sure if you’re mindful of all that. Here, it’s a completely different pace.”

How different? In NASCAR, drivers are rewarded for managing their brakes at a short track such as Martinsville Speedway, keeping them cool enough to last 500 laps.

In sports cars, it’s virtually the opposite. As Taylor explained, ABS allows drivers to “stand on (the brakes) as hard as you want, and it just does everything for you. It’s like a video game, but it’s hard to wrap your head around being able to brake and not worry about it. (Busch) has driven his whole career locking up brakes and adjusting brake pressures, and now he doesn’t have to, so it’s going to be weird.

“Some guys late in their careers can’t adjust to that because their muscle memory is so in tune.”

Taylor was teamed with Jeff Gordon on the 2017 overall winner at the Rolex 24, and he said the four-time series champion actually drove under the limits of his traction control because he hadn’t used it during a two-decade career.

“ABS is the weirdest thing to drive with; I don’t like it,” Taylor said. “There will be some weird little things that Busch is going to learn that sports car racing has.”

Driver changes: There will be multiple stints for Busch in the car he is sharing with Hawksworth, Parker Chase and Michael de Quesada, which will mean some frenzied swaps behind the wheel.

Though teams often practice how to make a driver change before the race, it’s difficult to simulate the race conditions that necessitate scrambling into a cramped cockpit under duress and then go full bore back on track.

Busch is familiar with accomplishing the switch in a race, having run a four-hour race at Daytona nearly 12 years ago.

“It’s a very choreographed effort,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re ready for and doing. As I’ve already made my practice runs, I’ve been working on where I got to get the belts and everything when I come down, to get ready to get out.”

Kyle Busch debriefs during testing (courtesy of IMSA).
Kyle Busch debriefs during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

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