Commentary

Kurt Busch the man to beat at Daytona

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Deucy-deucy racing having emerged as an entirely new phenomenon at newly repaved Daytona, it's only fitting that an entirely new maestro should emerge, and aptly numbered at that.

"It's double-deuce power right now," Kurt Busch said of his dominance so far in his newly liveried, newly numbered (Shell Pennzoil, No. 22) Dodge. "It's bright, it's yellow and it's fast."

And its driver has figured out the intricacies of the new tandem racing, two by two, better than anyone else so far.

Yes, Kurt Busch, who'd never won a restrictor-plate race until last Saturday night's Bud Shootout here.

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
AP Photo/John RaouxBud Shootout winner Kurt Busch celebrated in Victory Lane for the second time in five days.

Yes, Kurt Busch, who chose an unlikely and obscure drafting partner for the first of Thursday's "Duel" 150-mile qualifying races, and won by working with Regan Smith as flawlessly as he'd worked with Jamie McMurray in the Shootout.

The second 150 was largely an exhibition of Richard Childress Racing's sheer horsepower, as teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer locked together to dominate most of the race.

Burton and Bowyer settled it between themselves at the end, with Burton edging Bowyer at the finish line.

So Childress power is the engine to beat come Sunday, but the Penske Dodge-driving Busch is the man to beat.

"This is a new era at Daytona in my mind," Busch said. "Right now I just feel like I don't know anything about the draft, I just try to latch myself onto somebody to learn with."

He's learning faster than the rest, and it might be more accurate to say he's been finding someone to teach. From start to finish Thursday, he took young Smith in tandem for the new shove-swap-shove pairings that emerged in the Shootout, continued through the Duel, and promise to be the dominant tactic in Sunday's Daytona 500.

What Busch has figured out is the paradox of this old place with new pavement. He can "see the way Daytona can be repaved after 30 years [32 to be exact] and see something completely different [deucy-deucy as the tactic of necessity, baffling fans and thrilling drivers] and yet it's still the same old Daytona," he said. "You've got to have a partner, and the slingshot is there."

He demonstrated that on the green-white-checkered restart of the first 150. Two more tandems were in contention -- Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya, and Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth -- when the final green flag flew. But not for long.

Busch got a strong push through to the front from Smith, then took advantage of the oldest of Daytona aerodynamic principles, whether it's one by one, two by two or 30 in a pack: You want to get your nearest pursuers racing each other behind you, so you can break away.

This is an incredible Speedweeks. I just don't want it to end. I want to make sure we keep doing everything right.

-- Kurt Busch

Down the backstretch, the pursuers went four-wide and slowed one another down, and let Busch and pusher Smith break away cleanly.

So Busch is 2-0 for the most aberrant Speedweeks in memory, but "I can't get too far ahead of myself because this is Daytona," he said. "This place can jump up and bite you pretty quick."

But, "We've made the right decisions so far, made all the adjustments on our car, adapted to the rule changes -- the restrictor-plate sizes, the grille opening sizes [both reduced between the Shootout and Thursday's 150s, to slow down the 206 mph lap speeds the Shootout produced]. … We'll just keep rolling, keep going."

And so far, "This is an incredible Speedweeks," Busch said. "I just don't want it to end. I want to make sure we keep doing everything right …

"It's just amazing to be able to do this in the double deuce right now."

Dominant as he's been so far, "We're learning on every lap," he said. "There's always something to absorb and something to check out."

NASCAR's slowdown measures, meant to make the trailing cars overheat if they pushed too long in the tandems, didn't manifest themselves in engine problems for the top teams Thursday.

But, "It's going to continue to get warmer as the week progresses," Busch said. "It's going to be a whole different game when we have to do this for 500 miles."

Still, going into Sunday, the first deucy-deucy Daytona 500 is looking mighty double-deucy.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.