Through carnage and mirrorless driving, Kurt Busch escapes as Daytona 500 champion
The homecoming between Ford and former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kurt Busch started with Busch winning stock car racing’s premiere event, the Daytona 500.
The win has been elusive to the Busch brothers since 2001 when Kurt debuted and younger brother Kyle in 2005.
In his 16th attempt, Kurt led one lap after slip streaming past Kyle Larson on the outside line entering turn two to earn his first win since Pocono last June.
In an interview, Kurt said the outside lane was the only option to get by Larson.
“I made a move in one and two and the only thing I knew I can do to get a run from behind was to go high,” Kurt said. “I got the run by Kasey Kahne and then the spotter Tony Raines said ‘four back, five back, five back, five back,’ I couldn’t see the back to enjoy it. I was nervous coming to the line that I didn’t think we’re going to win.”
During the final 30 laps, Kurt drove the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford without a rear-view mirror.
Kurt said it was an omen and relied on his driving to win the race.
“(I didn’t) have to look at it anymore,” Kurt said. “I had to drive defensively and take advantage of other people’s mistakes. I was hoping that we got around and the other guys to side draft each other to win the race.”
The 500-mile race was marred with several multi-car collisions including the anticipated “Big One” on Lap 128, collecting 19 cars including Kurt, Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Entering turn three, Jamie McMurray pushed Johnson on the outside, forcing Johnson to shift down the middle as a full-charged Trevor Bayne tapped Johnson to start the pile-up.
It was Johnson’s third crash of the week after wrecking out in both the Advance Auto Parts Clash Feb. 19 and Thursday’s Can-Am Duels. Johnson finished 34th.
The race was slowed down eight times for 40 laps including a six-car pile-up that collected Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Earnhardt, Jr. took a heavy hit in the turn three wall and finished 37th in his first race after sitting out the last 18 races of 2016 with a concussion.
Earnhardt, Jr. said he enjoyed the whole week being back at the track despite not winning his third Daytona 500.
“We had a great car and at least led the race,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “It looked like Kyle had a flat tire, I turned the wheel left but also out of the gas in turn three. It got on the splitter and went straight. Luckily the hit wasn’t that hard but not the result the team wanted but it was a great week.”
Kyle said his tire went down and wished he would’ve waved off to warn other competitors that he was pitting.
“I just spun around,” Kyle said. “I actually felt that I hung on long and then finally it went. Tore up three Joe Gibbs Racing cars and Dale Jr. in one hit. I feel horrible for those guys but there’s nothing that we did wrong.”
Kyle vented his frustrations on Goodyear Tires to cause the accident.
“Goodyear Tires aren’t just very good at holding air,” Kyle said. “It’s very frustrating to have it at Daytona every single year. Last year we had a flat tire here too and wrecked a few cars in practice. You’re trying to win the Daytona 500 and it’s just so disappointing.”
The last 47 laps went under green as Kurt’s battered car picked off one position at a time to stay in contention.
Kurt’s opportunity arose when both pole sitter Chase Elliott and Martin Truex, Jr. ran out of fuel.
The driver’s misfortune allowed Kurt to be in position to pass Larson on the final lap.
Kurt said he stayed patient after learning his lessons from finishing second in the Great American Race three times (2003, 2005, 2008).
“There isn’t a rhythm to Daytona,” Kurt said. “Go with the unknown and keep your mind open to anything. Everything is so vivid with the memories, the moments, experiences and the way you approach this race. This is a huge day with everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford Performance.”
Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart also earned his first Daytona 500 victory.
Stewart, who retired from NASCAR racing after 2016, said he’s happy to see Kurt win the race he failed to achieve in his 18-year Cup Series career.
“I ran this damn race for 18 years and couldn’t do it but finally won it as an owner with Kurt,” Stewart said. “It’s probably the most patient race I’ve ever watched Kurt run and definitely deserves the win.”
Kurt’s win also puts him a step closer towards his quest of a second Cup title as he punched his ticket into the 2017 playoffs, beginning at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 17.
The next stop in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is Atlanta Motor Speedway at Hampton, Georgia March 5. Johnson is the defending race winner.