Kurt Busch discards rearview mirror, finally captures Daytona 500

4:22 | NASCAR
Wreck-filled Daytona 500 doesn't help NASCAR
Monday February 27th, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A last-lap pass was the silver-lining moment that decided a crash-filled Daytona 500. And the driver who made it was Kurt Busch, a beleaguered former Cup series champion who had managed no better than second place in 17 previous attempts to capture the Harvey J. Earl trophy. “I threw caution to the wind,” he said, “and let ’er rip."

The 38-year-old Stewart-Haas pilot appeared headed toward disappointment once more as he trailed the leading Chevrolets of Ganassi’s Kyle Larson and Hendrick’s Chase Elliott, the pole sitter. But as both those drivers ran out of fuel down the stretch, Busch—near fumes himself and operating without a rearview mirror, which came unhinged after a day of much bumping and banging—maneuvered his No. 41 Ford around the heavily damaged Toyota of last year’s runner up, Martin Truex Jr., and shot by Larson in the second turn of this 2.5-mile superspeedway on his way to the checkered flag.  This was after Busch started on the fourth row, in the eighth position. Tony Stewart, just Busch’s team owner now since climbing out of the cockpit for good at the end of last season, called it the “most patient race” he’d ever seen the Vegas native run.

This 200-lap, 500-mile contest was the first of the 38 on the Cup series schedule to run under NASCAR’s new three-part format. It was an unqualified mess, a real test even for a stadium full of stock car completists on a cloudless, 69-degree afternoon. There was a feeling it might be after the weekend’s preceding races devolved into straight-up demolition derbies. (Crash-related stoppages took up 45 minutes of Saturday’s 2.5-hour Xfinity race.) So eerie was the vibe that NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France was moved to say something in the drivers meeting before Sunday’s race. He appealed to their better angels. “We realize blocking is a part of racing,” he said. “It causes almost all the big incidents. Do not look for NASCAR [to bail you out]. You'd better hope there’s a Good Samaritan behind you that will accept that block. I don’t often make those statements, but I think it’s important today as we go into our most important event.”

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It began with Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother, overcoming a costly green-flag pit stop on the way to winning the first stage, a 60-lap sprint. But then 13 laps from the end of stage two, as Kyle was leading a three-car Toyota procession that was fighting to hold back the race leaders and stay on the lead lap, he blew the right rear tire on his No. 18 machine while rounding turn three and spiraled tail-first into the barrier. Collected in the skid were Furniture Row rookie Erik Jones, Germain’s Ty Dillon, two-time 500 winner Matt Kenseth and race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The five-car pileup red-flagged the race for 17 minutes. (Meanwhile, the younger Busch vented his frustration at NASCAR’s tire manufacturer, Goodyear, saying, on the FOX telecast, that their slicks are “obviously … not very good at holding air.”) Four drivers involved saw their afternoons cut short. That includes Earnhardt, whose attempt to comeback from an 18-race concussion layoff ended after 106 laps.

With Kyle and Junior out of the way, Kevin Harvick cruised to victory in the second stage, which was also 60 laps. The third stage, twice as long as the first two, was barely underway when disaster struck again. As reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson grappled for position near the front of the pack three other cars pulled alongside him in turn four, upsetting the air and trigging a “Big One” that gathered up 10 cars. Some of them were repairable. Johnson’s No. 48 machine was not. Nor, for that matter, were the Fords steered by Kurt Busch’s teammates: Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick. A few laps later another bout of bumper cars—in turn four, again—brought out the sixth caution flag of the day.

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The restart that followed resulted in a second big wreck. The trigger this time: a fight near the front, as the pack was filing through the backstretch. Among the impacted drivers were Ganassi’s Jamie McMurray (the 2010 race winner) and Penske’s Brad Keselowski (the 2012 Cup champion). “I haven’t seen the replay yet,” he said after emerging from the incident unharmed, “but everybody wrecked in front of me. We had just pitted and were running really good, right up at the front where we needed to be in contention for a solid finish and hopefully a win. … That is unfortunate.”

After yet another caution period, with around 50 laps to go the Great American Race was a shell of itself. Just 20 cars, or half the field, posed a serious threat. Most of those drivers had never visited Victory Lane in Cup. The exceptions: Larson (who won his first last summer at Michigan), Logano (who counts Daytona among his 17 victories), Truex (who’s emerged as a major contender since Furniture Row switched to Toyota power in 2016) and Busch—an incandescent talent who burns a bit too bright at times. It was just two years ago that he was embroiled in a domestic violence incident during a NASCAR weekend at Dover; it resulted in his being suspended from the ’15 season’s three races, starting with the 57th running of this very spectacle.

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In the years since Busch hasn’t exactly redeemed himself. (“It’s still a gamble,” said SHR co-owner Gene Haas, jokingly, of working with Busch. “You never know with Kurt.”) But, to Busch’s credit, he’s mostly confined his disruptions to the track, winning three times while distinguishing himself as a playoff mainstay. Certainly his breakthrough here vindicates Stewart-Haas’s decision to break off an eight-year partnership with Chevy to shack up with Ford, the company Busch won his lone Cup series title with in 2004. “I was neglecting experience in life; the different circumstances that were happening, I wasn't learning enough from,” he said, crediting his new bride, Ashley, a polo player and model, for bringing new balance to his life. “It’s like today when the mirror broke with 30 to go. I looked at it. I saw her in it. I’m like, She’s just going to smile. She’s just going to figure it out.

“I tell you, age and wisdom, they come together. Youth is wasted on the young. I’ve been through some different patches here or there, but to have a team that believes in me, that’s the most important part. To have a wife that believes in me, and a family of course, all the way through all of this.”

With this victory, Busch secures a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. What’s more, the 56 points he collected places him at the top of the overall standings heading into next Sunday’s race at Atlanta. Of course to stay in the catbird seat, a driver can’t countenance any complacency—especially under these new rules, which place a heavier premium on complete race performance. If Busch continues to steer clear of trouble he could well prove quite difficult to unsettle.

 

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