By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The race for the Harley J Earl, before it turned into the near annual slugfest, was set to be a Richard Childress Racing vs. RFK Racing tag team match.
It was Kyle Busch, with a push from Austin Dillon, driving past Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher with five laps to go. Busch and Dillon had cleared the RFK cars and were running in front of William Byron coming to the white flag when Daniel Suarez spun from contact by Jimmie Johnson.
From there, the race devolved into a series of restarts and crashes.
Dillon was eliminated on the first overtime, a push from Byron gone wrong, leaving Busch in third behind Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse without a teammate. Busch still had a chance on the final restart, running second behind Logano when he was turned around in the decisive crash of the race, which began with Aric Almirola, Travis Pastrana and Bubba Wallace.
Busch went from taking the lead straight-up to getting checked out of infield care with a half of dozen of his peers.
Upon crashing, Busch said over his team communication channel that he would have won this race if it were 1998, a reference to races that ended at its advertised conclusion and before green-white-checkered finishes.
That’s how Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the Daytona 500 that year. Instead, Busch was left wondering what could have been when he and Dillon lined up side-by-side for that penultimate restart.
“I was hoping to have a ‘teammate restart’ where I could get on the bottom, get locked-up with (Byron) and work together and push and go,” Busch said. “It looked like it was kind of working but we got too much separation off (Turn 2) and I backed it up to get to them. I got squirrely when I got hit, Austin checked up, and the accordion happens, and everyone is running over everyone.
“I think this is the first time I led lap 200, so I wish it was 1998 rules. Par for the course. Just used to it. Come down here every year just to find out when and what lap I’m going to crash and when I get to come out of the care center.”
Dillon says their strategy ultimately didn’t pan out.
“We weren’t as good as the Fords being able to tandem, and get hooked up,” Dillon said. “The 6 (Keselowski) just drove through the 24 (Byron) and it’s what he does. His car is good enough to where he just drives wherever he needs to and push them out of the way, or wreck them, and that’s the desperation they’re in right now.
“I hate it because I really wanted to get Kyle Busch into victory lane in the Daytona 500. Looking back, probably should have been a little more selfish to that point, honestly, but it was one of those deals where it’s a hard point to be in.
“I wish it would have been to the white flag for the position we were in.”
Did Busch have any conviction over his chances by himself on that final overtime?
“I don’t think you’re ever confident,” he said. “Who won, who lucked into it?”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“There you have it.”