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Kurt Busch sets aim on becoming repeat champ in Daytona 500

By Dan Gelston

AP Sports Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kurt Busch is ready for his close-up outside the car. Busch signed with an entertainment agency in the offseason and may soon make the leap from stock cars to the silver screen.

Busch could beef up his IMDB page instead of racing for NASCAR titles.

Always one of sports more fiery personalities, performing comes naturally to Busch.

“I’ve been acting for 18 years in the garage area,” Busch said.

Busch already had several starring roles in some of NASCAR’s top dramas over the course of his career. He’s been the bad boy. He’s been rebooted as a family man. Through 18 seasons and five teams, Busch’s top starring role has always come behind the wheel.

The 39-year-old Busch is racing toward a Daytona 500 championship sequel.

Busch could become just the fourth driver to go back-to-back and win consecutive Daytona 500s. Richard Petty (1973-1974) and Cale Yarborough (1983-1984) both won consecutive Daytona 500s, and no driver had his name etched on the Harley J. Earl Trophy two straight years since Sterling Marlin (1994-95).

“I feel the pressure. I like it,” Busch said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

Busch was a bit of a surprise winner last season in the first race for Ford as part of Stewart-Haas Racing’s lineup. Busch, who had been suspended by NASCAR for two days before the 2015 Daytona 500 for off-track behavior, used a last-lap pass to win a race that was otherwise marred by a series of wrecks. He survived the crashes and gave SHR its first Daytona 500 victory.

“Winning Daytona is like winning a championship ,” Busch said. “It’s one of the coolest things in stock car racing is to win Daytona. To hoist up a trophy and to have that with us at Stewart-Haas, it’s equivalent to winning a championship.”

Busch has a trophy, just not the winning No. 41 Ford.

The car has been on display for the last year at Daytona International Speedway’s Daytona 500 Experience Museum.

Busch wanted the car — he had a failed negotiation at keeping the Ford in his recent contract talks — but it’s headed to the Stewart-Haas Racing shop where it goes on display with Kevin Harvick’s 2014 Cup series title winner and team co-owner Tony Stewart’s 2010 championship car.

“Hopefully, we’ll push one in next week and then I’ll have that car the year after,” Busch said.

Again, Busch will be a longshot.

There have been repeat NASCAR champions and drivers who swept multiple races on the same track in the same season, but none who could solve Daytona two straight years in the 23 seasons since Marlin went back-to-back at “The Great American Race.”

Just what makes the Daytona defense so tricky?

“You can’t go back to the same pattern from a year ago,” Busch said. “Everything changes so quick. If you think you have mastered the track, you can never do that. This place, you have to respect the track. You have to respect the race itself and have to find new things each and every year.”

There was some doubt Busch would even get the chance to repeat with SHR.

Busch, who signed with Stewart’s team in 2014, had his contract option declined last year by the team before the two sides in December agreed on a one-year deal for 2018. Crew chief Tony Gibson retired from his position at the end of last season, and Busch has a new chief in Billy Scott. Scott was crew chief for former SHR driver Danica Patrick the last two seasons.

The Daytona 500 did nothing to serve as a catalyst for Busch’s season. He failed to win another race, led only 16 laps all season and quickly flamed out in NASCAR’s playoffs.

There’s another repeat in doubt: New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski could make another cameo in the pits as both athletes are sponsored by Monster Energy. Gronkowski celebrated with Busch and the Monster girls in victory lane a year ago.

Busch, the 2014 Cup champion with 29 wins in 612 career starts, hadn’t heard much about other stars in the pits.

“Every race there’s somebody cool, somebody different,” Busch said.

Busch found his own cool factor in front of the camera, filming spots for Discovery’s “Fast N’ Loud” and he worked as a guest commentator at a Supercross event . He’d like to work more behind the mic.

“It’s fun to learn more about the TV side of things,” he said. “If I’m able to do anything in TV, it would be car related.”

Former champions Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth have all retired over the last three years, making Busch’s ‘04 crown the oldest of any active driver. But he’s in no rush to join his contemporaries and call it quits. Busch would like to keep racing beyond this season and said his personal life is finally as settled as it’s been over his career. He recently celebrated his first anniversary with his wife, Ashley, a competitive polo player.

“It’s really been a wonderful time in my life,” Busch said.

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More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/

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