Zak Brown hasn't personally taken Kyle Busch up on the two-time NASCAR Cup series champ's invitation for Chevy IndyCar teams to "call me up" about Indianapolis 500 opportunities in 2023, but the McLaren Racing CEO didn't deny that the outreach had been made.
"I have not personally spoke with Kyle, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has," Brown admitted during a conference call with select reporters Wednesday morning.
But if — not when — a decision is made on running a fourth car in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing alongside Pato O'Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist, Brown was clear that running Busch wasn't at the top of Arrow McLaren SP's priority list.
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With Busch's need to pair up with a Chevy IndyCar team — given his new Chevy affiliation with Richard Childress Racing next year — a quick process of elimination had narrowed the options to one. Roger Penske and Tim Cindric have emphasized many times their happiness 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, would seem to be maxed out at four cars. And Juncos Hollinger Racing, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and AJ Foyt Racing all would seem to lack the platform or the level of competitiveness Busch and his brand would desire.
"We want to make sure that if we run a fourth car (in the 500) … (it's) someone that's experienced around the 500," said Brown, whose team took 2nd, 4th and 11th in 2022. "It's such an important race for going toward the (IndyCar) championship, so from my point of view, we've got three drivers and we want to finish as strong as possible."
Busch's older brother Kurt was the last active NASCAR driver to pull off what for decades has been coined "The Double" — running the Indy 500 and Cup's Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. In 2014, the elder Busch tied the best finish in the 500 among the nine previous attempts. In that race with Andretti Autosport, Busch qualified fourth-best of Andretti's five cars (12th overall), and on what was a massive day for the team with Ryan Hunter-Reay's victory, finished fourth-best among his teammates — sixth overall.
Should the younger Busch commit to a 500 this year, it would make logical sense he'd attempt to run both races to keep his Cup role at the forefront.
In looking at the names still available for 2023, few remain who would fit Brown's hope for a 500 veteran. Takuma Sato likely wouldn't fit as a Honda-backed driver. Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely be tough to arrange, given his IMSA testing role with Chip Ganassi Racing and CGR and McLaren's recent history. Tony Kanaan is not yet spoken for to make what very well may be his final 500 start but has seemed to fit well within Ganassi's framework the past two years. Others such as JR Hildebrand, Santino Ferrucci or Sage Karam may not fit the profile Brown and McLaren would want, despite their experience and solid results.
That, of course, leaves the driver that has manned AMSP's one-off 500 car each of the past two years: two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who has finished a solid ninth and 11th coming off his three-year hiatus, but who had to be pushed awfully hard by Brown to commit to last year's run. Would he be up for another? It's a question only Montoya can answer.
Since Rossi's debut win in 2016, Ed Jones' third-place finish in 2017 marks a 500 rookie's best finish in the past six runnings. Only three other rookies have logged top-10s (Robert Wickens, ninth in 2018; Santino Ferrucci, seventh in 2019; and O'Ward, sixth in 2020) in that span, and rookies' best finishes in the past two uber-competitive 500s have been 16th (David Malukas in 2022) and 20th (Scott McLaughlin in 2021).
In the elder Busch's run to sixth in 2014 he finished one spot behind Montoya. Combined with Jimmie Johnson's quick adaptation to IndyCar oval racing, experience in the 500 and in open-wheel racing isn't always paramount when it comes to strong Indy 500 results.
As he keeps Kyle Busch under consideration for that potential fourth ride, it'll be up to Brown, along with AMSP's new racing director, Gavin Ward, to decide what to prioritize. For now, Brown said, Busch doesn't sit at the top of his list.
"And that's not purely because of him, but because of experience," he said. "He's an awesome talent and would (be) huge, huge news for the Speedway, but everyone's under consideration if we decide to do it, and experience is at the top of the list as far as what's going to be most important to us."
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500: How Kyle Busch fits Zak Brown's preferences for fourth car