Zak Brown hasn’t personally approached Kyle Busch about inviting the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion to Chevy IndyCar teams to call me about Indianapolis 500 opportunities in 2023, but the CEO of McLaren Racing didn’t deny that was the case had been made.
“I haven’t spoken to Kyle personally, but you can read that someone else in our organization did,” Brown admitted during a conference call with select reporters Wednesday morning.
But if – not when – a decision is made to drive a fourth car in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing alongside Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist, Brown was aware that Busch’s entry would not be high on Arrow’s priority list McLaren SP stands perform.
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With Busch’s need to team up with a Chevy IndyCar team – given his new Chevy affiliation with Richard Childress Racing next year – a rapid elimination process had narrowed the options down to one. Roger Penske and Tim Cindric have repeatedly stressed their joy at three cars as they work to rediscover the team’s competitiveness in the 500. Ed Carpenter Racing, should they continue their partnership with Paretta Autosport, looks to be maxed out with four cars. And Junco’s Hollinger Racing, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing, and AJ Foyt Racing all appear to lack the platform or level of competitiveness that Busch and his brand would desire.
“We want to make sure that when we drive a fourth car (in the 500) … (it) is someone who has experience with the 500,” said Brown, whose team finished 2nd, 4th and 11th in 2022. “It’s such an important race for the (IndyCar) championship, so from my perspective we have three drivers and want to finish as strong as possible.”
Busch’s older brother Kurt was the last active NASCAR driver to do what was dubbed “The Double” for decades – driving the Indy 500 and Cup’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. In 2014, the elder Busch achieved the best result in the 500 of the nine previous attempts. In that race with Andretti Autosport, Busch qualified 4th best of Andretti’s five cars (12th overall) and finished fourth best among his teammates – 6th overall – on a great day for the team with Ryan Hunter-Reay’s win.
Should the younger Busch commit to a 500 this year it would be logical that he would try to compete in both races to maintain his Cup role at the top.
Looking at the names still available for 2023, few remain that would fit Brown’s hope for a 500 veteran. Takuma Sato probably wouldn’t fit as a Honda-backed driver. Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely be difficult to arrange given his IMSA testing role at Chip Ganassi Racing and recent history at CGR and McLaren. Tony Kanaan isn’t destined for his final 500 start just yet, but has seemed to fit well into Ganassi’s frame over the past two years. Others like JR Hildebrand, Santino Ferrucci or Sage Karam, despite their experience and solid results, may not fit the profile that Brown and McLaren want.
That leaves, of course, the driver who has driven AMSP’s one-off 500 car in each of the last two years: two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished a solid 9th and 11th after his three-year hiatus, but who had dreadful from Brown being pushed hard to commit to last year’s run. Would he be ready for another? Only Montoya can answer that question.
Since Rossi’s debut win in 2016, Ed Jones’ third-place finish in 2017 marks the best result by a 500 rookie in the last six rounds. Only three other rookies (Robert Wickens, 9th in 2018; Santino Ferrucci, 7th in 2019; and O’Ward, 6th in 2020) have top 10 finishes and the best rookie finishes in that span the last two highly competitive 500s have been 16th (David Malukas in 2022) and 20th (Scott McLaughlin in 2021).
In the elder Busch’s run to 6th place in 2014, he finished just one place behind Montoya. Combined with Jimmie Johnson’s quick adaptation to IndyCar oval racing, 500cc and open wheel racing experience isn’t always paramount when it comes to strong Indy 500 results
While considering Kyle Busch for that potential fourth ride, it’s up to Brown, along with AMSP’s new race director Gavin Ward, to decide what to prioritize. Right now, Brown said, Busch isn’t high on his list.
“And that’s not just because of him, it’s because of the experience,” he said. “He’s a great talent and would be huge news for the speedway, but everyone is considered when we go about it and experience is high on the list, which will be the most important thing for us.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Indy 500: Zak Brown will prioritize experience over flair at Kyle Busch’s 500 prospects