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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch celebrates his victory in the Gatorade 150 Mile Qualifying Race 1 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thursday, February 17, 2011. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
Saturday, February 18, 2012

Busch prepares to defend Shootout championship

DAYTONA BEACH – This offseason has been more noteworthy than most at Phoenix Racing.

Team owner James Finch made headlines across the country when he signed Kurt Busch to a one-year contract to drive his No. 51 Chevrolet throughout the 2012 Sprint Cup schedule. Overnight, Phoenix found itself front and center of many discussions in NASCAR circles after the mercurial Busch found a new home following his unceremonious exit from Penske Racing.

“We’ll be the cover story of USA Today on Friday, and then I had an interview (Tuesday) with the New York Times,” Finch said. “It’s been a lot of exposure out there. Then our driver got picked as one of the Top 10 most disliked athletes. That was out of Forbes (Magazine). I thought he was in some good company. There was Alex Rodriguez, Lebron James, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods. And then Kurt made it.”

The offseason officially ends with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Busch and the Phoenix Racing team get to satiate their competitive desires a week earlier than that in Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway (8 p.m., FOX). Busch is the Shootout’s defending champion.

Finch is eager to get back to racing, too, and added, “We’re expecting to win the Shootout.” That may be the expectation, but Finch wasn’t really sure he wanted to enter the race before TAG Heuer Eyewear offered to sponsor Busch in the event.

“The Shootout is kind of like the (Pro Bowl) deal for the NFL,” Finch said. “Nobody wants to get hurt or wreck or nothing. They’re out there, but they’re focusing on the (Daytona) 500. The Bud Shootout is a non-points race, so it doesn’t matter. If you don’t win it, you’re not going to make any money.

“Kurt wanted to race in the Shootout, but I didn’t necessarily want to race in the Shootout. He’s the defending champion and we got a sponsor to pay for it, so I said, ‘OK, let’s have at it.’ ”

Finch is anxious to see how Busch fits in with his team, something he doesn’t expect to judge until the season is at least a few races old.

Busch did have a promising start consistently producing some of the fastest lap speeds during practice sessions at Daytona in January.

Busch posted the fastest time of all drivers during testing on Jan. 13. Working in tandem with drafting partner Regan Smith, Busch posted an average lap speed of 206.058 mph, including 210.9 mph down the backstretch.

Daytona 500 practice is set for Saturday (Speed, 11 a.m., 4 p.m.) and front-row qualifying is Sunday (Fox, 1, 4 p.m.). The remainder of the starting field will be determined in the Gatorade Duels, a pair of 150-mile races Thursday afternoon.

Finch wants to qualify in the Top 10 for the Daytona 500, and he fully expects to be running up front after 200 laps on the 2-mile track.

“I’ve had a lot of success down there,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to get the big one.”