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.”