DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch is hoping to become the first back-to-back winner of the Daytona 500 in more than 20 years.

Busch admitted recently that he is feeling the pressure entering the Daytona 500 as the defending race winner, but the 39-year-old Las Vegas native said he’s using it as motivation.

“I feel the pressure. I like it,” Busch said. “I want to bring home another trophy, but mainly I want to do that because it has only been done three times for someone to go back-to-back.”

There is a reason the feat, done only three times and most recently accomplished by Sterling Marlin in 1994 and ’95, hasn’t been done often. Daytona and restrictor-plate racing provides a unique challenge, something that requires equal parts skill and luck.

The fact is Busch was in the right place at the right time last year. Busch had strategically saved fuel, putting him in position to pounce on the final lap of the race when several other cars ran out of fuel. When race leader Kyle Larson slowed coming out of turn two down the backstretch, Busch pounced and picked up the biggest victory of his career.

“Everything changes so quick,” Busch said when talking about racing at Daytona. “If you think you have mastered this track, you can never do that. You have to respect this track. You have to respect the race itself and you have to find new things each and every year when you come back here to apply and find the right spot to be in at the end of the race.”

The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion said that winning the Daytona 500 is almost like winning a championship. The accolades, the fanfare, the prestige, all of it is so unique to Daytona and Busch now knows what it’s like to experience it for himself.

“Winning Daytona is like winning a championship. It is one of the coolest things in stock car racing, to win Daytona,” Busch said. “To hoist up that trophy and have that with us at Stewart-Haas, it is equivalent to winning the championship. I know Gene Haas was excited, everyone at Monster was ecstatic with the way it all came together last year in our first race back with Ford, it was a tremendous win.

Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch (41) races under Kyle Larson during the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday. (HHP/Alan Marler Photo)

“It is really an experience to win Daytona and come back and experience it all and be promoting the race as the defending champion. It is unique. I am looking forward to this opportunity to defend this title and try to make it back-to-back for Stewart-Haas Racing at Daytona.”

Busch started off his Daytona 500 defense with a solid afternoon on Sunday at Daytona Int’l Speedway. He qualified 17th during Daytona 500, which earned him the ninth starting spot in the first Can-Am Duel race on Thursday. He backed that up with a third-place effort in the Advance Auto Parts Clash later Sunday afternoon, which he said later was vital to his team’s preparations for his Can-Am Duel race and the Daytona 500 later this week.

“Project number one was to do all the laps so that we could understand more about our tires and our setup and the way that the car was going to handle,” Busch said. “Then step number two was to have fun. I had a blast. I wanted to make another move on the last lap but ran out of steam because the guys behind me got too wide. I couldn’t jump in there and go after the Penske guys. It is a good day for Ford and good day for us and Billy Scott, my new crew chief. Now we will go back and debrief about our car.”

Could Busch join Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Marlin as just the fourth back-to-back Daytona 500 winner? We’ll know in less than a week.