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Kurt Busch rebounds, advances to eliminations in NHRA debut

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch carried around the qualifying results from his first professional drag-racing event Saturday.

He didn’t fold it or stuff it in a pocket.

The Las Vegas native was taking this one home with him — to be framed.

The 2004 Sprint Cup champion bounced back from two error-filled qualifying runs at the NHRA Gatornationals with two solid passes Saturday and advanced to the elimination rounds.

“It was an overall better day,” said Busch, the 32-year-old Penske Racing driver who is tied atop the Sprint Cup points standings. “You’ve got to have those tough days to go through to make you appreciate what a good day can be, and today was that, so we’re really excited.”

Busch’s best run covered the quarter-mile strip in 6.532 seconds and reached 211.46 mph in the Pro Stock division, good enough for the No. 12 seed in the elimination bracket.

Busch will face fifth-seeded Erica Enders in the opening round of the 16-car field today. The winner will advance to the next round; the loser will go home.

“When you put the helmet on, everything’s equal,” said Enders, who posted the fastest qualifying speed (213.57 mph). “It doesn’t matter if it’s Kurt Busch or George Bush, we’re going to do the same thing. I think it’s great for the sport that he’s here. I think it’s going to shed a new light on it.

“Hopefully he’ll go back and tell his NASCAR buddies how awesome NHRA is and how tough Pro Stock is to drive.”

Busch found that out Friday as he messed up just about everything possible. He smoked the tires at the starting line, then mistakenly shut down the engine during his first pass. He got timed out for failing to stage properly during his second run.

“Everything that I was supposed to be doing this weekend should have been done at a sportsman level,” Busch said. “It’s right there exposed for everybody. It’s part of growing up and learning. I just wish I had more time to do drag racing. It’s a lot of fun, and we’re very committed to doing this.”

Busch acknowledged that the first-round matchup was an interesting one, especially since Enders is the only woman in the field. He expects to be mocked in the NASCAR garage if she beats him.

“I’m sure there’s going to be the razzing,” Busch said. “But it would be an accomplishment if we are able to advance. It can go either way. … You can’t take anybody lightly in this whole Pro Stock field. I think the lightest guy you can take is me because I’ve got the least amount of experience. I’ve got my own self to go up against. Hopefully we hit the right marks and we do well.”

Enders said all the pressure is on Busch, even though he’s an NHRA rookie.

“Think about what he’s thinking,” she said. “It’s his first race, he’s got me, he’s got a girl, he’s got 80 million people in his entourage, it’s tough. I’ve driven Pro Stock for seven years, and when I first started, being the only girl in a really long time, I had cameras in my face. I know what he’s going through.

“It’s hard no matter how great of a driver you are. He’s awesome in NASCAR and got a ton of experience. He’s a professional. He’ll do fine tomorrow. We’ll see who comes out on top.”

Busch said making the elimination field was his primary goal after months of preparation.

■ NASCAR TRUCKS — At Darlington, S.C., Kasey Kahne earned a NASCAR victory, and to him, that’s more important than a few days off.

The Sprint Cup regular led the final 51 laps, held off defending series champion Todd Bodine and brought more success to Kyle Busch Motorsports in winning the Camping World Trucks event at Darlington Raceway.

Kahne easily could have been soaking up some sun, like his Cancun-bound truck owner, during the Sprint Cup off week. Instead, Kahne took part in his favorite form of relaxation — winning races.

“I’ll buy (Busch) a vacation anytime to drive this thing again,” said Kahne, who has won 11 Sprint Cup races — but none in nearly two years.

Ron Hornaday Jr. finished second, and Bodine was third. Series points leader Matt Crafton took fourth, and James Buescher finished fifth.

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