DAYTONA 500 NOTEBOOK \ News and notes

Busch makes strong debut: Kurt Busch ran his kind of race: near the front, out of trouble and barely noticed. He's got this down pat. Busch, the defending Nextel Cup champion, mimicked his run to the 2004 title in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. While he never led a lap, he was right in the middle of the frantic finish. "That's what you live for," said Busch, who settled for second behind Jeff Gordon. "That's what keeps me coming back every race, is to be able to have an opportunity to go for the win on the last lap and steal it away." Busch, also the runner-up to Michael Waltrip at the 500 two years ago, won his first series championship in 2004. He did it with consistency more than flair, winning only three times but persistently finishing in the top 10. After an off-season as the champion, he was eager to get started on a repeat. "Coming off one of the greatest moments in my life, just to start off with something fresh and new," Busch said. "It was great to get back in the car and use my brain for something else other than talking with sponsors or talking with the car owner about changes with the crew. "It was good to get back in the car." By the end of Sunday's race, Busch was ready to get out of his No. 97 car. "I had to use the bathroom beyond belief," he said. "We were out there for five hours in the car."
Last-place Labonte: Bobby Labonte left Daytona International Speedway earlier than ever Sunday. Labonte had engine problems about a dozen laps into the Daytona 500, finished last in the 43-car field and took home another bad memory from the sport's biggest race. "It's just one of those things. There's nothing you can do about it," said Labonte, who is now 0-for-13 in the Daytona 500. "Obviously, this isn't the way you want to start the season." No, but Labonte should be accustomed to this by now. NASCAR's 2000 champion wrecked three years in a row in the Daytona 500 before finishing 11th a year ago. He returned to his ill form Sunday. Labonte's No. 18 Chevrolet blew an engine on lap 14, sending him to the garage and leaving him with his worst finish in the event. It was the sixth time he has finished 40th or worse at NASCAR's most famous track. It also was his worst showing in a Nextel Cup race since he ended up last in 1998 at Atlanta. "There was no warning at all," crew chief Steve Addington said. "It's nobody's fault." Labonte has won only five races since his series championship -- none last season -- and he had hoped a crew chief change midway through last year would change his luck. Not at Daytona.
Ashton's antics: Actor Ashton Kutcher, the brains behind MTV's hidden camera show "Punk'd," was hard to take seriously at the Daytona 500. Kutcher, an honorary starter who waved the green flag to begin the race, joked that he spent the last month getting his wrist in shape for the moment. He stretched and iced it daily and protected it through the night. "It's all in the wrist," said Kutcher, who was accompanied by girlfriend Demi Moore. "I built a Plexiglas box that I keep it in while I'm sleeping so I don't roll over it." He also quipped that he wanted to wave the checkered flag instead. "I thought that would be more entertaining and fun," he said. "Then I realized that when you wave the checkered flag, you only make one person happy. When you wave the green one, you make millions of people happy. It's a pretty big gig."
Pardon the interruption: The prerace drivers' meeting at Daytona, always filled with glowing introductions to all the stars and CEOs on hand, had a brief moment of levity. David Hoots, events director for NASCAR's Nextel Cup series, was reading a long list of rules for the drivers and crew chiefs when a cell phone started ringing on stage. After about four rings, former NASCAR president and current co-vice chairman Bill France Jr. realized the distracting sound was coming from Hoots' pocket. "Turn that off," France said. Hoots pulled out the phone, looked at the caller ID and said, "Don't you love your wife?"
Star watch: As always, the Daytona 500 had plenty of star power. Former Miss America Vanessa Williams sang the national anthem and actor Matthew McConaughey uttered the famous words "Gentlemen, start your engines." Several others also were on hand, including country music singer Clint Black, Boston Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon, Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich, Detroit Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez, LPGA Tour champion Annika Sorenstam and former Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson. But the only standing ovation during the drivers' meeting, where many of the luminaries were introduced, was for former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch. Lynch became one of the most visible faces of the war when she was rescued from an Iraqi hospital on April 1, 2003. She was on crutches, still recovering from injuries sustained when her Humvee crashed during a firefight. "There are times in our history that there's a moment captured that we all find faith and belief in. That happened a couple of years ago in Iraq," NASCAR president Mike Helton said as he introduced Lynch as an honorary race official. "Years from now, hundreds of years and generations from now, I think there will be a history chapter read about this young lady."
Associated Press