Posted: 10:04 pm Sunday, February 26th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Two years ago, Kurt Busch’s suspension from NASCAR kept him out of the Daytona 500. Now, newly married and back in a Ford, his success comes back full-circle. Busch’s 29th-career win is his most important. The only lap he led was the one that mattered. Here is how he and the Tony Gibson-led No. 41 team survived a wild race with cars sputtering to the finish line to win the 59th Great American Race.
Flag-to-flag: NASCAR’s debut of its new triple-stage, mid-race points-paying format was inauspicious at first. After major wreck fests in both the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series races the day before, the opening 100-plus laps ran with very little attrition. Chase Elliott (finished 14th) led the first five laps from the pole and would go on to lead 39. The lead then changed hands between Jamie McMurray (28th) and Kevin Harvick (22nd) and a few others after that.
The entire Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing Toyota teams pitted just 20 or so laps into the 60-lap first stage, hoping to gain track position when others pitted. Rookie Daniel Suarez (29th) cut a tire and sped on pit road and had to pit again and teammate Matt Kenseth (40th) also badly flat-spotted a tire on the same sequence and re-pitted. They each later wrecked, along with most of the field. The strategy worked and Ky. Busch won Stage 1.
The first “Big One” commenced during a round of pit stops on lap 106, when Kyle Busch (38th) cut a rear tire and collected satellite teammate and rookie Erik Jones (39th), Kenseth, rookie Ty Dillon (30th) and outside pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. (37th). A red flag later came out and froze Elliott Sadler (20th) in the lead – he also got damage in the crash.
After the race resumed, Kevin Harvick took the race lead, eventually leading a race-high 50 laps, and won Stage 2, also securing a playoff bonus point like Busch.
The second big wreck broke out on lap 129, just nine laps into Stage 3. McMurray looked inside Jimmie Johnson (34th) and got into him, turning the No. 48 across the field inside the top 10, and collecting 17 cars. Teams put NASCAR’s new five minute clock for crash damage and the rule stating cars entering the garage are done for the day, to the test. Several retired after that melee.
The race resumed for a few more laps before Ryan Blaney (2nd) slowed to try and pit and set of a chain reaction wreck that eliminated Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (31st), and sent his teammate Trevor Bayne (10th), and Sadler spinning. But that wasn’t enough.
On lap 142, just one lap after the race went green, McMurray set off another wreck that collected 11 cars. McMurray was done for the day. Last year’s 500 winner Denny Hamlin (17th) continued on, but out of contention. Brad Keselowski (27th) had been a contender all Speedweeks, but had to go to the garage.
One more wreck on lap 151, set off by Joey Gase (23rd) trying to pass Elliott and collecting Brendan Gaughan (11th), allowed the field to get to the pits and get just on the edge of their fuel window to make the finish of the 200-lap race. Elliott got damage in that wreck and the one before it, but the No. 24 repaired it and he drove right back to the front.
Cole Whitt (18th) kept the Tri-Star Motorsports No. 72 Ford on the track and led the field to green. The field soon disposed of him and Aric Almirola (4th), Kyle Larson (12th), and Joey Logano (6th) all took turns up front. But Elliott drove to the outside of Logano and took the lead for 23 laps, as Logano’s low lane faded and he fell back.
The top 15 or so rode around in the high lane single-file, with Logano and Blaney trying, at times, to look low and move to the front. Elliott rode with Martin Truex Jr. (13th) 2nd, Ku. Busch 3rd, and Larson 4th. With just a handful of laps left, Larson popped low out of line, had no help, then jumped back up in line ahead of Busch. Then with three laps to go, the rug got pulled out from Elliott.
Truex Jr. looked simply to out-fox the youngster and power into the lead, with Elliott trapped in the low line with no help. But as soon as the pass happened, Elliott radioed crew chief Alan Gustafson, saying he was out of fuel. Truex Jr. then started sputtering, before he ran out. Then the same happened to Larson, leaving Ku. Busch and his new Roush-Yates Ford engine to survive up front. With cars falling off the pace, Blaney got into second spot and started sputtering on the back straightaway, with A.J. Allmendinger (3rd) and several others closing in.
But Busch had enough left in the tank and enough of a lead to get his Daytona 500 win. An emotional Tony Gibson cried on the FOX broadcast from his crew chief seat atop the No. 41 pit box. A jubilant Busch and crew celebrated in the infield, before Busch drove up to get the checkered flag. This also was Busch’s first-ever restrictor plate win.
The race was a strange one, with only a few cars not getting some kind of crash damage and only 25 of the 40 finished. The new stage format made for some exciting pit strategy and amped up the intensity to race for the top 10 and the lead at the lap 60 and 120 marks. The fuel strategy at the end also provided a real wrinkle and some drama in the closing laps.
Top 10: Ku. Busch (the Monster car gets a win in the first-ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race); Blaney (got a runner-up finish in a damaged backup car running on fumes); Allmendinger (one of the few cars to not get damage); Aric Almirola (also finished without a scratch); Paul Menard (invisible all day and almost cut a tire early in the race); Logano (just couldn’t get help in the end); Kasey Kahne (led laps for the first time since Talladega in October 2015); Michael Waltrip (no damage in any wrecks and a good finish in his final career race); Matt DiBenedetto (first-ever top 10 finish for GoFas Racing); Bayne (nursed his damaged car to be the sixth Ford in the top 10).
MENCS RaceTweet: Kurt Busch survives a wreck fest and stretches his fuel to win the Daytona 500. Chase Elliott has heartbreak with the race in hand. Dale Jr.’s crash collection gets bigger.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Chase Elliott – As I wrote after the Duels, Elliott showed with his Thursday win that he not only was fast, but he could manage the draft up front. He was overly aggressive, even in the words of his spotter, Eddie D’Hondt, but not so much that the jubilance hurt him. Elliott led 39 laps, second-most in the field, survived crash damage and drove forward again, and likely would have won, if his fuel lasted. As his predecessor in the No. 24, Jeff Gordon, noted: the cars rode the long way around the track in the high line and that probably ran them out. Gordon said more than once that Elliott should have been driving low into the corners…if only Gordon had a radio.
North Korean Missile Dud: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Elliott’s teammate and fellow front row starter is a dud not of his own doing. After missing 2016’s second half, Earnhardt Jr. came back competitive in the No. 88, leading eight laps. But the party ended in the Kyle Busch wreck on lap 106. Earnhardt Jr. cut low of the wrecking cars, but clipped Busch, got on two wheels and landed, then scraped against the wall. The No. 88 team tried to fix it, but couldn’t.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Kurt Busch – The race winner got some significant right-front damage in the huge lap 129 wreck. But Gibson led the crew to patch it up and Busch bid his time and got to the front when he needed to, scoring Stewart-Haas Racing’s first 500 win in their first race with Ford. If we learned anything in Speedweeks, we learned that these cars take a beating and still be sporty in the draft.
Ghost Driver: Denny Hamlin – This guy won the 500 last year and won the second Can-Am Duel race Thursday. He was supposed to run up front all day Sunday. But the pit strategy lost him a lap at one point and two multi-car wrecks rendered him uncompetitive. He and I both led the same number of laps.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Matt DiBenedetto – “Guido’s” move to GoFas Racing is really a lateral one from the struggling BK Racing operation he drove for the past two seasons. DiBenedetto is not expected to be a contender or even run better than he has before. But even with crash damage, the 25-year-old scored a 9th-place finish, which is the best finish ever for that No. 32 team. Good vibes.
Wheel of Misfortune: Jimmie Johnson – The two-time 500 winner and defending Cup champion had a Speedweeks from hell. He spun 1.5 times in the Clash, got wrecked in the Duel and then cut a tire and wrecked again in his damaged car, and then got turned in front of the field in the 500. For all that trouble, Johnson got five regular season points.
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Michael Waltrip – Oh, why not? He finished 8th in his final career race, driving through the big wrecks without a scratch. Then he got stuck in the back of the draft in the closing laps, but made enough positions up to enter the top 10, on account of several contenders running out of gas. Cheers, Mikey.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: There is plenty to like about NASCAR’s new stage rules and crash repair regulations. But the sport needs to tweak the consistency, execution, and exposure to information.
First, the race should not run seven laps under yellow during the break between stages. Either those laps shouldn’t count, or NASCAR should red flag the race. Just chewing up laps where drivers could be racing each other is a waste. Yes, the break is for commercials, but running under yellow for no reason is not what people want to see.
The crash rules are okay and seemed to work well in most instances, but fans and media need easy access to the crash clocks for each team. Even teams seemed confused by how much time they had to fix their cars and under what circumstances they were on the clock. This info should be readily available, so there is transparency in how the sport enforces the rules.
NXS RaceTweet: Ryan Reed holds of a crash-scarred pack to win Daytona for the second time in three years. Sadler was dominant, but got cleaned out.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Kaz Grala rode patiently behind his teammates and won the race after a huge wreck and after winning the pole. Every stage 1/2 winner in all three series crashed out this weekend.
Georgia, On My Mind: Chase Elliott’s 14th-place result was not quite the best of the Georgia gang all weekend, but it was the most dominant. His chance to win his first MENCS race slipped through his fingers, but it bodes well for the rest of his sophomore season.
David Ragan got squeezed into the outside wall, while running in the top 10, and finished 25th, after multiple pit stops. He lost an astounding 12 laps in the race and still placed that high in the No.38 Ford. Reed Sorenson did not qualify for the race, after getting wrecked in Thursday’s first Duel race.
Saturday’s race saw Garrett Smithley get damaged in an early wreck, but still soldier on and drive up to 8th at the finish of the NXS race. Ryan Sieg got damaged in multiple wrecks, the last of which ended his day, and he placed 21st. Chris Cockrum got radiator damage when a side window flew off another car and into the grille of his No. 25 Chevy; the crew could not repair it in five minutes and he finished 28th. And Atlanta’s Brandon Jones won the pole in his second season in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, but he got caught up in a big wreck and finished 29th. Cartersville’s Mark Thompson, who normally runs the plate races, couldn’t make a qualifying lap and missed the race.
Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race was another crash fest. Cedartown’s Korbin Forrister, who recently announced he is running a full season in the Wauters Motorsports No. 5, got eliminated in a lap 71 wreck, placing 20th. Hephizbah’s Wendell Chavous, returning to the series for a full season in the Premium Motorsports No. 49, finished two laps down in 19th.
Next: Back to reality…and all the gravity it brings. All three series race on the old pavement at the 1.5-mile, lightning fast Atlanta Motor Speedway. The MENCS Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 in Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on FOX, PRN, and Sirius/XM Channel 90. Saturday’s doubleheader sees the NXS run at 1:30 p.m. on FS1 and PRN and the NCWTS at 4:30 p.m. on FS1 and MRN. I’ll be part of the PRN O’Reilly Auto Parts pit reporters and look forward to that. The weather should be good, so come out and see the last race before the repave at AMS.