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Kurt Busch wins 150-mile race at Daytona

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The Washington Post's LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg, Tarik El-Bashir and Jonathan Forsythe preview the Daytona 500, discuss Jimmie Johnson's dominance and look ahead to NASCAR's plans to memorialize Dale Earnhardt on the 10 year anniversary of his death.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:17 AM

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. - After suffering through years of heartbreak on stock car racing's hallowed pavement, Kurt Busch appears primed for a breakthrough in the Daytona 500.

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Busch is now 2-for-2 at Daytona International Speedway after winning the first of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for Sunday's race. Five days ago, he earned his first restrictor plate race victory in the preseason Budweiser Shootout.

"I would say we're hard- pressed not to be the favorite," said Busch, who was runner- up in the 2003, '05 and '08 Daytona 500s. "The Shell-Pennzoil [Dodge] is out front right now. I don't like the favorite role. I like to be the underdog."

It's going to be tough for Busch to sneak up on anyone, though, after he leads the field to the green flag in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who captured the pole position but must start in the rear after wrecking his car Wednesday in practice.

"It's going to be one of those moments in time that I'll remember for a long while, to lead the field to green," Busch said. "It's somewhat by default. But those are the rules. I'll make sure I massage my right calf so when I go to full throttle it doesn't cramp up [and] settle into this Daytona 500 once all the emotions get in check."

Busch received a big push from Regan Smith to seize a late lead after a yellow flag set up a two-lap sprint to the finish line. Smith contemplated a pass on Busch coming off Turn 4 but his Chevrolet couldn't catch up. Kevin Harvick finished third, while five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was 11th, two spots ahead of Earnhardt Jr.

In the second qualifier, Jeff Burton edged teammate Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip and Kyle Busch in a wild race that featured a record 22-lead changes and an emotional moment when rising star Brad Keselowski pushed older brother Brian, a 29-year-old rookie driving a five-year-old chassis with an underpowered engine, into the 43-car field. Now Brian Keselowski, who finished fifth, will make his Sprint Cup debut in the Daytona 500.

"It's a good thing it was my brother [pushing] because I don't know if anyone else would have stuck with me that long," Brian Keselowski said during a tear-filled news conference. "Thank God for him. As of Wednesday, I didn't even know if we were going to make it" to Daytona.

All of that, however, was somewhat secondary to continued reaction to the slew of rule changes aimed at slowing the cars for safety's sake.

Daytona International Speedway's repaved surface has created a glass-smooth track - and speeds that made NASCAR nervous. With cars traveling in excess of 200 mph, officials mandated the use of a smaller restrictor plate to restrict the amount of air entering the carburetor, and thus, reduce horsepower.

NASCAR also mandated smaller openings on the front grille and reduced the maximum cooling system pressure, all in an effort to discourage "tandem drafting," which drivers found to be the fastest way around the steep-banked 2.5-mile oval during the Bud Shootout. The smaller opening causes the trailing car to overheat when drafting nose-to-tail because it takes the clear air off of the radiator.

But it didn't have the desired effect. Cars still drafted in pairs. They simply swapped positions occasionally. After Thursday's races, drivers know how long they can push their cars before they'll overheat, who's a trustworthy partner in the two-car draft and, perhaps most important, how to execute a swap without causing a wreck.

"You can't make any erratic movements with the steering wheel," Busch said. "You can't second-guess yourself. The moment you second-guess yourself, turn the wheel the other way, when you zig, the other guy zags, and you're in trouble."

Veteran Michael Waltrip, who qualified for his 25th consecutive 500, said: "It's wild to be out there. It's another page in the history of Daytona. I don't mind it. It's as interesting as anything I've ever done."

Fifty-five year-old Bill Elliott added: "I've never experienced anything like what you have to do to make this work. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. . . . Just like a bunch of kids playing leapfrog, but they were doing it in pairs."

Busch had a more confident take on things on the nerve-racking racing that's left drivers physically and mentally exhausted.

"I love this style," he said. "We're in victory lane [Thursday], and there's no way I'd change it."

elbashirt@washpost.com


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