Busch knocked out in opening round of NHRA event

This photo released by NHRA shows NASCAR driver Kurt Busch qualifying in the Pro Stock Division at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday March 12, 2011.(AP Photo/NHRA,Jerry Foss)
This photo released by NHRA shows NASCAR driver Kurt Busch qualifying in the Pro Stock Division at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday March 12, 2011.(AP Photo/NHRA,Jerry Foss) (Jerry Foss - AP)

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By MARK LONG
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 4:12 PM

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch climbed out of his dragster with a huge smile on his face, then got mobbed by crewmembers.

He might as well have been in Victory Lane.

Busch celebrated a narrow defeat in his professional drag-racing debut Sunday, far from the emotions he would have shown had his day ended so early in a NASCAR race.

But Busch was a rookie in his first pro event, facing a seasoned veteran and merely trying to have some fun during NASCAR's open weekend. So this loss was a big win - for Busch, for the NHRA Gatornationals and for the often-overlooked Pro Stock division.

"This was a weekend that I'll never forget," Busch said.

Erica Enders edged Busch by half a car length on the quarter-mile drag strip. Enders, the No. 5 seed, covered the distance in 6.538 seconds. The 12th-seeded Busch crossed the finish line in 6.541 seconds.

Nonetheless, Busch had the fifth-fastest time in the opening round - good enough to beat most of the field. It also turned out to be his best run ever, better than any of his 50 testing passes, better than his four qualifying efforts and better than anyone expected.

"We just came up short," Busch said. "It's three-hundredths of a second, and in this game of drag racing, that's enough to put you back on the trailer. I feel we can hang our heads high about this. It was a fantastic enjoyment all weekend."

Had the 2004 Sprint Cup champion been at a NASCAR event Sunday, he would have jumped on his private jet and been home in a few hours. Instead, he stuck around Gainesville Raceway to experience the event.

After a brief celebration with his team, Busch returned to the starting line and watched the rest of the competition. He cheered for Enders, the only woman in the 16-driver field, who lost in the second round. Busch spent countless time walking around the paddock area, shaking hands with fans and posing for pictures.

"It's a unique feeling," Busch said. "The atmosphere here is like a carnival atmosphere. I'm ready to grab a corndog and a cold beer and go watch ... finish the day off."

Busch made his NHRA debut last year in Gainesville. He entered his 1970 Dodge Challenger in the Sportsman division, but got only two passes over four days because of heavy rain. Despite his lack of experience, Busch decided to turn pro. He got backing from Dodge and his NASCAR sponsors, then rented a car from Pro Stock veteran Allen Johnson.


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© 2011 The Associated Press

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