DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The yellow car streaked away at the front of the field, as it had again and again over the course of the Daytona 500. Matt Kenseth had a vehicle so dominant, no one could catch him -- until the No. 20 Toyota began shaking and smoking as it entered Turn 1. Two turns later it had all grown markedly worse, and the driver knew what was coming next.
"We're getting ready to blow up," Kenseth said over the team radio.
And just like that, it was over. After leading 86 of the first 149 laps and looking untouchable over much of that stretch, Kenseth pulled down off the race track and coasted onto pit road. His crew raised the hood and was greeted by a cloud of smoke. "God dog," crew chief Jason Ratcliff said forlornly, before sending the vehicle to the garage area.
Kenseth's bid for a second consecutive Daytona 500, a third overall and a first with his new Joe Gibbs Racing organization came to a stunning and premature end due to an engine failure Sunday. One of the fastest drivers throughout these Speedweeks, the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion was relegated to a 37th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway that didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the upcoming campaign.
"I know we're sitting in the garage and everybody's going to think we're going to be bummed out, and I am," he said. "But I can't be any more thankful and excited, honestly. I don't think the week could have gone any better. Our finishing position doesn't show it, but it's a great group. Really, really fast race cars. And if we get some of our reliability stuff fixed, we're going to win races and hopefully contend for championships."
Part reliability has been a recurring theme at JGR -- Denny Hamlin's championship bid last season was effectively ended by a master switch failure -- and Sunday, the issue raised its head again. Moments after Kenseth went to the garage, teammate Kyle Busch pulled off the track with a mechanical issue of his own. JGR engines are supplied by Toyota Racing Development. The team said both were engine issues, though it did not appear the two stemmed from the same problem.
Sunday, that was small consolation.
"There's pieces that are supposed to stay together, and they didn't stay together," said Busch, who won Thursday's second qualifying race for the Daytona 500, but finished 34th in the main event. "I hate it for this whole team. These guys -- they do a great job and work too hard, and it sounds a lot like 2012 already."
Kenseth moved to JGR in the offseason after a long and very successful tenure at Roush Fenway Racing, where he won 24 races, including the Daytona 500 in 2009 and 2012. He had suffered a vibration earlier in Sunday's event, but said that was unrelated to the problem that ultimately knocked him out of the race. Before the engine failure, everything about his first start in the No. 20 was going smoothly -- in fact, he had congratulated his pit crew on their best stop of the day right before smoke began to emit from his back end.
"Here's the thing -- it could always be worse," he said. "We could have ran last all day and be sitting in the garage. So I mean, there's a lot to look forward to. As disappointed as I am, it would be easy to be disappointed and throw my Gatorade at you or whatever. But man, there's a lot to look forward to. I just can't help sitting here and thinking how thankful I am they put this together for me, and I just can't wait to get to Phoenix."
Busch, meanwhile, wasn't as sanguine, likely because he's experienced such frustrations before. He missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, partly because of failures like engine blowups in consecutive races and a brake rotor fracture that led to a crash. Busch wasn't nearly as dominant as his teammate Sunday, but had a car that easily ran among the leaders until it wound up in the garage.
"It just shows you how much more devastation there is to it when you can have cars like that, and running that fast, and that they stay up front and they're good," Busch said. "All of the guys at JGR built an awesome piece. All three of us have been fast since we've been down here. (This is) the best we've qualified here in a while, so kudos to all of the guys building these cars. But we've got to have engines that last."
Denny Hamlin was the lone Gibbs driver to make it to the end Sunday, leading 33 laps before finishing 14th. Kenseth tried to focus on the positive -- mechanical problems are repairable, he said, and Daytona is just the beginning of a long season ahead.
"You don't totally forget about it, because you go back and try to fix whatever's wrong so you don't drop out of races again," he said. "But you kind of forget about it and move on to Phoenix and start over. I learned a long time ago, good or bad, as soon as Speedweeks is over, forget about it. It doesn't have a bearing on the rest of your season unless you're affected. The only year we missed the Chase, we won the Daytona 500. So it doesn't make or break your season. There are a whole lot of races to go. I feel like I have the greatest team in the garage, and I'm looking forward to getting to Phoenix and getting after it there."
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