Kurt Busch survives, wins the Daytona 500

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season kicked off with the 59th Daytona 500 on Sunday. In a chaotic race, Monster Energy-sponsored Kurt Busch was able to avoid wrecks and the curse of fuel mileage to win his first Daytona 500.

The race was marred by wrecks as multiple cars were taken out in various incidents. On two occasions, the yellow flag came out on the same lap as the green flag. After a caution, an exasperated Denny Hamlin remarked, “You don’t think we’re going to get a couple cautions? We can’t even run in a straight line.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started on the front row next to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, fell back early as he was swallowed by the inside and outside lanes when the pack went three-wide. The grid slowly separated into four packs, the majority of cars being in the first, while Jeffrey Earnhardt and Matt DiBenedetto were the lone cars in the fourth. Joey Logano suffered problems early when his wheel became loose, forcing him to pit and go a lap down. The Joe Gibbs and Furniture Row Racing cars pitted shortly after, but their strategy was marred by further problems when Daniel Suárez was penalized for speeding on pit road and Erik Jones nearly caused a wreck as he attempted to merge into the pack. The first caution of the day came out on lap 30 for rookie Corey LaJoie; as Clint Bowyer was pitting, LaJoie swerved to avoid the #14, instead slamming into the outside wall in the tri-oval. David Ragan also suffered from damage during the stage when he collided with the wall after making contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., ruining his top-10 run. Kyle Busch would lead the field by lap 60 to win the first stage.

The second stage saw the lead shuffle between various drivers, including Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt. Despite leading the race, Earnhardt’s chances of winning were dashed on lap 105 when he was collected in a five-car wreck; as he entered turn three, Kyle Busch spun, collecting his teammate Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon. Earnhardt was unable to avoid the crash and suffered right front damage to his #88 car. Shortly after the caution flag was displayed, the flag was changed to red upon discovery of a splitter being stuck in the wall.

During his interview, Busch expressed his unhappiness at the Goodyear tires, proclaiming they “do not hold air.” Busch’s retirement continued the trend of stage winners failing to finish, let alone win, their races; Johnny Sauter led the first two stages in Friday’s Camping World Truck race before being involved in a crash on the final lap, while Elliott Sadler did the same in Saturday’s Xfinity race before being collected in the Big One on lap 106.

The race returned to yellow conditions after a 17-minute delay. Sadler, who took the lead after avoiding the lap 105 chaos, relinquished it to Harvick as he pitted. Harvick led the field to the restart with ten laps to go, holding on to take the second stage win. However, Harvick’s race came to an end on lap 129 when he was involved in a multi-car accident featuring the likes of Johnson, Trevor Bayne, D.J. Kennington and Chris Buescher. All three of Harvick’s SHR teammates – Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch – were also collected in the accident.

Elliott led the field to the restart on lap 133. The sixth caution of the 500 came three laps later, when Bayne, Sadler and Stenhouse Jr. wrecked; Ryan Blaney motioned to Sadler that he was going to pit, though Sadler was unable to safely pass Blaney’s #21 as they exited turn four, triggering the wreck. Kasey Kahne inherited the lead on the restart with 59 laps to go, but the green-flag run was short-lived when Jamie McMurray clipped Elliott, spinning McMurray into the wall and causing another pile-up on the backstretch. Other victims of the crash include Daniel Suárez, Ty Dillon, Landon Cassill, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski.

The restart came on lap 149 with Logano at the helm. However, yet another yellow flag was flown shortly after when Joey Gase was clipped by Elliott, hit the wall and slid down the track and into the infield; Brendan Gaughan was also involved in the incident. The ensuing restart featured Cole Whitt leading the field to green, battling with Aric Almirola before the trio of Kyle Larson, Elliott and Ryan Blaney occupied the top-3. Larson continued to lead until Logano took over, dueling with Elliott for the position as the laps wound down. With less than 20 laps to go, the field began to run single-file along the outside line. After the race, Logano expressed his confusion at the strategy, though four-time series champion and Fox announcer Jeff Gordon commented, “When you run high, it makes the track longer.”

With two laps to go, Elliott ran out of fuel, eliminating him from race contention. Other drivers also fell out as they ran out, including Martin Truex Jr. (who claimed the lead after Elliott ran out), Logano and Whitt. Larson took the lead on the final lap before he also ran out, allowing Kurt Busch to slip past and take the win. Ryan Blaney, who started the race from the rear of the field after being forced to drive a backup car due to damage during Thursday’s Duels, finished 2nd. Larson, Truex and Elliott, who had a shot at the win before their fuel ran out, were forced to settle for 12th, 13th and 14th, respectively.

“The more that becomes unpredictable about Daytona, the more it becomes predictable to predict unpredictably, I mean this car was completely thrashed, not a straight panel on it,” Busch stated in Victory Lane. “The strategy today, who knew what, to pit when. Everybody’s wrecking as soon as we’re done with the second segment. The more that I’ve run this race, the more that I’ve thrown caution to the wind and just let it rip. That group put on a fantastic run to the end and everyone did a get job not to wreck each other.”

It is Busch’s first Daytona 500 victory in 16 tries and Stewart-Haas Racing’s first since the team’s formation in 2009. The win also marked a strong start to the new relationship between SHR and Ford, a partnership that was formed during the 2016 season in time for 2017.

Other notable runs include Michael Waltrip, running his final NASCAR race, finishing 8th for Premium Motorsports; Matt DiBenedetto recorded his second career top-10 in his debut with Go Fas Racing as he finished 9th; Brendan Gaughan, driving for Beard Motorsports (a 2014 team that was revived for the 2017 Daytona 500) in a one-off, finished 11th.

Busch hopes to continue his momentum into Atlanta for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on March 5.

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