Two down, one Daytona 500 to go

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:20 PM ET

DAYTONA — Kurt Busch will never be mistaken for a Jeff Gordon, or a Jimmie Johnson or a Dale Earnhardt. Jr.

In fact he famously dismissed any comparison with all three established NASCAR Sprint Cup stars last season when he referred to the Hendrick Motorsports power trio as “pretty boys.”

Oh, yes, Kurt Busch has a chip on his shoulder alright, even though he has a Sprint Cup championship on his resume and a very impressive 22 race wins, 153 Top 10s and an even dozen poles.

So it is with some relish that Busch heads into Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway with the chance to make history in his No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge.

When the week of racing leading up to the Great American Race began last Saturday it was Busch who was first across the finish line in the Budweiser Shootout.

Five days later he put the Penske Dodge back in Victory Lane by winning his half of the Gatorade Duel 150s.

A win on Sunday would make him the only driver in NASCAR history to complete a Daytona sweep.

Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Junior Johnson are all in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., but none of them have three wins in a week at Daytona.

Busch would be loathe to admit that pulling off the triple would automatically vault him into such august company, but even being in the same sentence with such NASCAR icons obviously pleases him immensely.

And why shouldn’t it?

After winning his Sprint Cup championship for then Roush Racing in 2004, he was never accorded the respect he felt he deserved on Roush’s five-car team.

In fact, within two seasons he was cast aside, only to be picked up by Roger Penske.

Dropped into the high profile No. 2 Penske Dodge, Busch kept the team in the thick of the Cup championship for each of his seasons since.

Now in a new car — the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Penske Dodge — Busch is licking his chops at the chance to win his first Daytona 500.

He says he doesn’t feel any pressures normally associated with being the favourite in NASCAR’s most famous race.

“I’m not worried about it. We’re just trying to stick with our game plan,” Busch said.

“We still want to push forward; the Daytona 500 is what we came here for.”

He said that with race day on the horizon, his victories earlier in the week are clearly in the rear view mirror.

“The tokens that we have with the Shootout and the Gatorade are nice,” Busch said. “But we’re here after the big, ultimate prize.”

Not that he isn’t excited.

Busch said the butterflies started the moment he realized his Duel 150s win would put him on the front row on Sunday after pole sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. was forced to go to a back-up car following a crash in practice.

And he said those butterflies won’t stop until he starts his engine for the 500 mile race.

“The normal part will be exciting when we fire up the engines and see Dale Jr. drop to the back and we’ll be leading the field to start the 53rd running of the Great American Race,” he said.

It will be at that moment, Busch said, he’ll have to pinch himself and attempt to calm his nerves.

“I’ve got to put all those emotions aside and get into the groove of the 500-mile race,” he said.

The first thing he wants to establish is having the right dancing partner for the expected Daytona two-car trains that will likely dominate the proceedings.

“We’ll do that during Lap 1,” Busch said. ”I hope that Regan Smith and I are tied-up together like we need to be and we lead Lap 1. We’ll just settle in after that.”

Not to be forgotten, Busch said, is that it is, after all, a 500-mile race that will see many changes in strategy from the first lap to the last.

“Everybody is set for 500 miles,” he said. “It’s not sprint racing any more.”

He worries that the extended two-car drafting that was so prevalent in the Duels won’t work over 200 laps on Daytona’s 2.5 mile oval.

Busch’s concerns are shared by Dodge engineer Howard Comstock, who worries about engine wear in those long periods when cars are hooked together nose-to-tail.

“A key to the Daytona 500 will be how drivers manage engine temperature while in the draft,” Comstock said. “If you get the engine too hot, you lose water. If you lose water, the engine will get hotter and you won’t be able to run 500 miles. You can see the catastrophic potential.”

Busch hopes to avoid such a catastrophe.

And given his track record this week he just might get all that respect he feels he deserves in the NASCAR garage that goes with a Daytona 500 win.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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