DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kurt Busch won a thrilling Daytona 500 on Sunday in a race that started out clean in the first stage, but rapidly descended into madness over much of the final two in the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series under the new three-stage race format.
Busch grabbed the lead in his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford with one lap to go, as the lead changed hands four times over the final three laps.
It was the only lap Busch led all day as he claimed his first victory in the Great American Race on his 16th try. It is the first time in the 59 years of the Daytona 500 that the winner led only one lap.
“I have a lot of people who have believed in me over the years and supported me over the years,” Busch said. “This is what it’s all about.”
He took the lead from Kyle Larson after Larson had grabbed it from Martin Truex Jr. with two to go. Truex had taken the lead from Chase Elliott with three laps remaining.
The action over the final 80-lap segment was intense and non-stop – well, except for all the times cars wrecked and track cleanup was required, which was often.
“Everybody was wrecking as soon as we got done with the second stage,” Kurt Busch said. “The more that I’ve run this race, the more that I’ve just thrown caution to the wind and let ‘er rip.”
Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother, won the first 60-lap stage, which was relatively uneventful except for when rookie Corey LaJoie appeared to misjudge his speed coming to pit road around Lap 30 in his No. 83 Toyota. LaJoie nearly ran over the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Clint Bowyer in the process and then veered off into the outside wall, which he hit hard, after narrowly missing Bowyer’s car.
Other than that and a handful of pit-road speeding penalties, the first stage was pretty clean.
That was not how the rest of the race played out.
The Toyota cars of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing made it obvious that they entered the day with a plan to short-pit together and stay together in the draft as much as they could.
While that worked to their advantage in the first stage, it cost them dearly on Lap 46 of the second 60-lap stage when Kyle Busch’s No. 18 JGR Toyota lost a rear tire and snapped loose in front of teammate Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones, driver of the No. 77 Toyota for Furniture Row. Both slammed into Busch, and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually ran right over the top of Busch’s car, heavily damaging his own in the process.
Kyle Busch said he had no inkling that he was about to lose a tire.
“I don’t know if it was a left rear or a right rear that went down, but, man, (we) tore up three JGR cars in one hit and also Junior,” said the younger Busch, who has never won the Daytona 500. “So I feel bad, horrible, for those guys. But man, it was nothing we did wrong. Obviously Goodyear tires just aren’t very good at holding air.”
That opinion, of course, was disputed by Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing who said that Busch was “speaking out of frustration” and “didn’t have all the facts.”
Nonetheless, the wreck ended the days of Busch, Kenseth and Jones immediately. Earnhardt was able to get back on track briefly after some repairs to his car, but he headed for the garage and called a day, too, after only a few more laps under caution.
“I thought maybe we could get the car fixed and get out there and see what we could do with the rest of the day, pick up some spot maybe,” Earnhardt said. “But there was just too much damage.”
That left it wide open for Kevin Harvick to claim the Stage 2 win, although Joey Logano made an aggressive attempt to steal it from him at the line on the stage’s final lap. Logano dove to the inside of Harvick, but came up just short.
Then came Stage 3, and the hits kept coming in startlingly rapid fashion.
Within a handful of laps before the final 80-lap segment reached halfway, there were three more huge multi-car accidents.
On the first one, Ryan Blaney used a hand signal out his driver’s-side door to indicate that he was slowing to pit. Elliott Sadler, who was right behind him, did the same.
But Jeffrey Earnhardt, who was behind them both, apparently did not get the memo and ran into the back of Sadler, setting off a chain reaction that also took out the cars being driven by Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Shortly thereafter, with 58 laps left in the race, Jamie McMurray made an aggressive move and clipped the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott – sending Elliott into the No. 95 of Michael McDowell and setting off a chain reaction that resulted in major damage for several cars, including Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford suffered a broken track bar, eliminating yet another top contender.
Just seven laps later, another incident occurred when Joey Gase appeared to get tapped from behind by Elliott, sending him into the No. 75 car driven by Brendan Gaughan.
The end result of all the mayhem: With 50 laps left in the Great American Race, only five cars were left that hadn’t suffered some kind of damage in the multiple wrecks that stacked up from Stage 2 and into Stage 3.
The drivers of those five cars were Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger – and for a brief moment, it left the unheralded Cole Whitt as the race leader.
That did not last long, however.
Logano muscled his way to the front with 36 to go, but eventually Elliott wrestled the lead back away from him and Logano got shuffled back in the front pack.
Elliott then led most of the remaining laps until Truex caught him with three to go. But Truex could not hold off Larson, who could not hold off Kurt Busch.
“My rear-view mirror fell off with 30 to go,” Kurt Busch said. “I said, ‘That’s an omen. Now I don’t have to look at it anymore. I don’t have to drive defensively, and I can take advantage of other people’s mistakes.”
He did just that, leading the only lap he needed to.