DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 with a last-lap pass of Kyle Larson, giving new NASCAR Cup Series title sponsor Monster Energy a serendipitous start to its relationship with the sport.
Busch passed Larson in Turns 1 and 2 on the final lap. Not long after Busch passed Larson, Larson’s car ran out of fuel and faded to the back.
““There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past,” the 38-year-old Busch said in victory lane. “My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind. The more unpredictability that keeps unfolding at the Daytona 500, I predicted it.”
The 500 was contested on a glorious February Sunday. The only clouds were courtesy of the trails left by the Air Force Thunderbirds’ pre-race flyover. A sellout crowd of 100,000 was announced and athletes and celebrities like New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and actor Owen Wilson basked in the sunshine before the race.
The perfect weather and atmosphere soon gave way to racing that was anything but. Most of the field was involved in crashes over the last 100 laps of the race, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was making his return to racing after sitting out half of the 2016 due to concussion symptoms.
Unofficially, just five of the 40 cars that started the race were able to avoid an accident altogether and just 12 cars were in the main pack with 10 laps to go.
Busch was not one of those five drivers without damage, as his right front was significantly wounded.
Perhaps the accidents led to the sense of calm that permeated the final 20 laps of the race. Much like the 2016 Daytona 500, the race wound down with the contenders for the win largely single file as drivers opted to bide their time to make a potential race-winning move. Larson moved first, kicking Chase Elliott – who led most of the race’s final stretch – out of the lead to start an eventful final three laps.
Monster, who has sponsored Busch since 2015, agreed to replace Sprint as NASCAR’s top series sponsor in December. While Busch crashed out of the season-opening exhibition Clash a week earlier, he survived a crash Sunday that took out his three Stewart-Haas Racing teammates.
The win is the first Daytona 500 victory for three-time Cup Series champion now full-time car owner Tony Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season. Stewart, a half-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, won every stock car race in his illustrious driving career at the track except for the Daytona 500. And this Daytona 500 was the first race for Stewart-Haas Racing in a Ford. The longtime Chevrolet team switched manufacturers for the 2017 season.
It was also the first race for Junior since participating at Kentucky in July. Junior missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season after summer concussion issues and ran well until he was caught up in a crash when Kyle Busch lost air in a tire and spun, collecting Junior, Matt Kenseth and others.
Junior’s return coincided with the introduction of the NASCAR’s new in-race stage format in the Cup Series. The race featured planned cautions on Lap 60 – the end of stage one – and Lap 120.
The scheduled breaks meant teams tried non-traditional strategies with pit stops knowing they would be guaranteed the option to pit at the two known breaks. The varying pit strategies led to moments where the leader of the race would be running in the middle of the pack (around lapped cars) rather than at the front.
Kyle Busch won the first segment, but like drivers who won the first stages in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series races earlier in the weekend, he crashed out. Kevin Harvick won the second segment and he, too, saw his chances disappear with a crash.
Not long after the final segment began on Lap 126, Harvick was collected with a host of others in a crash that started when Trevor Bayne made contact with Jimmie Johnson entering Turn 3. As Johnson’s car got spun around, Harvick, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch were collected.
Seventy-four laps later, Kurt Busch was in the front, racing to the finish line ahead of everyone to win the biggest race in the sport.
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