As has been written and said many times, Kurt Busch's mantra this season is to "have fun" and get back to what he calls "old-school racing."
Now with Phoenix Racing after mutually parting ways with Penske Racing during the offseason, Busch enters the 2012 season in a far different position than he has ever in been in his career.
Unlike his previous employers – Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing – Phoenix is a single-car team operating on a miniscule budget.
The irony in all this is while the James Finch-owned team may not have the number of personnel of NASCAR's top organizations, what they do have is engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports. That's the same equipment Tony Stewart raced last year to win his third Sprint Cup championship.
With Hendrick horsepower and cars underneath him, Busch finds himself in excellent position to win his first Daytona 500.
Although Busch has never won the Daytona 500 – or for that matter, any points race on a restrictor-plate track – he's come close several times. On three different occasions, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion has finished second.
The first time was in the rain-shortened event in 2003, when he finished runner-up to Michael Waltrip. This was followed by a second-place finish to Jeff Gordon in '05. And if it's at all possible to get even closer to winning, Busch in '08 pushed his then-teammate Ryan Newman to Victory Lane, giving Roger Penske a one-two finish in "The Great American Race."
"I have finished second three times," Busch said. "I've pushed a teammate to win – Ryan Newman back in 2008. I remember back in 2005, when I had a move to make on Jeff Gordon on the outside going into Turn 3 and I looked in the mirror and saw everybody cutting to the inside to go by me in the draft. I'm like, ‘Man, I just got to block to the inside and take this second-place finish.'
"It kind of eats at me a little bit that I should have taken that risk to go to the high side and see what could have happened off Turn 4."
Second-guessing oneself is understandable considering the circumstances. But Busch makes it very clear a win at Daytona in the 500 would mean more than a win anywhere else.
"It's really the race that can define a driver's career," he said. "It is a big priority – the prestigious value of winning at Daytona, what it does for a driver's career long-term and what it can do for the immediate impact. This race is our spectacle. It is the most important stock car race of the year."
But a win in the 500 would also mean more than just winning the biggest and most celebrated stock car race in the world. With his team lacking a fulltime sponsor, a victory and the $1.43 million awarded to the winner would allow Phoenix Racing to buy some much-needed cars and parts.
"We have one really good downforce car we are going to take it to Vegas," Busch said. "I have to protect it because we need it two weeks later at California. Then, we will need it two weeks after that to go to Texas. So we have to protect our good cars.
"I hope we win the Daytona 500 – that means we will have more of a budget to buy more cars. It is that old-school (mentality) of you have to do well and protect the cars so you have it the next week."