By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch’s 14th attempt to capture the Harley J. Earl Trophy will have to wait another year after going from leading in the closing stages to finishing second in Sunday’s Daytona 500, leading 34 of 207 laps.
On Lap 199, Hamlin ended Busch’s time out in front just as the field was wrecking behind him in Turn 3, collecting seven cars. The plan for Hamlin was to race and staying out, which Busch followed suit. Two restarts later, it was about to go down between the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
However, Busch couldn’t get a strong run and instead had to hold off defending series champion Joey Logano for second, which he was able to do so but the agony of not winning the 500 was surrounded Busch, who was hoping Logano would help him to make a run on Hamlin.
“I was trying to back Joey up at the entrance of pit road and through the tri-oval and try to build that energy between Joey and who was behind him, I think it was the No. 47 (Ryan Preece),” Busch on the finish. “Then coming out of the tri-oval, Joey just pulled left and got to my inside. He made it two-wide instead of giving me the shove, it just didn’t happen.”
Busch described that before the Lap 199 caution, he was working with the Fords to get a strong run on the backstretch and it proved costly.
“This was probably the best shot to win,” Busch on his overall performance. “Being up front that much at the end of the race, having the track position and in those positions on those restarts. That one restart where Denny wanted to race, I took the bottom because having the Ford team behind me, I felt like that was going to be a good lane to be in front of. They came off (Turn) 2 and spread out, and that’s when the No. 14 (Clint Bowyer) got crashed and the No. 11 had the lead because he was ahead at the time, and that kind of cost us. Then he wanted to go back into teammate preservation again.”
While disappointed of coming up short, the most important thing on Busch’s mind was at least one of the Joe Gibbs Racing entries won the race which was Hamlin, who led the 1-2-3 sweep and becoming the second team to accomplish this feat in the Great American Race.
“We tried to make sure that we at least get a JGR in victory lane. They didn’t want to do it on the previous restart, but since Denny got the lead, he wanted to do it again. It is what it is, at least we got a JGR car in victory lane. That’s the big picture and we’ll move on.”
Busch added the top-three sweep at Daytona is a confidence booster going forward after the team lost co-founder J.D. Gibbs last month.
“It’s a boost in confidence for everybody included with Joe and all the things that Joe and the family had gone through over the last few weeks losing J.D,” said Busch.
“It’s certainly a bittersweet situation for myself as I much rather be the one to win the race and be in victory lane and celebrating with my team and everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing and be a part of the J.D. celebration.
“Overall, you couldn’t be more thrilled for all the 500 people at Joe Gibbs Racing that knew, respected and looked up to J.D. for the person that he was and for the relationships he gave to all of us.”
Known to be Ford’s playground over the past few seasons, the Toyota Camry (who only had six entries) led 116 of 207 laps to Ford’s 40, Busch stated that although the Toyotas had a superb showing, the Ford camp are still the ones to beat at superspeedway tracks.
“I thought the Ford were really strong still,” said Busch. “Especially when they got themselves into a group and had eight of them single file, they were pretty fast. Then there were times out there certainly that the No. 95 (Matt DiBenedetto) led a lot of laps, we led a lot of laps and got out front.
Busch added that the reason the Toyotas were able to outperform the field came down to pit strategy, and once they were out in front, nobody could stop them.
“There at the end, I think it was just track position and how we came off pit road,” said Busch. “(Me and Denny) kind of kept the field at bay for the rest of the day after 30 to go. I think it was pretty evenly matched as the day went on and we kind of saw that some of the Toyotas and Chevys were kind of working, and the speed was there in those situations to keep up with the Fords.”
After all the flak the sport has received due to the lack of action in both the Clash and Duel races, Busch said the quality of racing was good with the bottom groove finally materialized and insisted that it should be a full field instead of half.
“I thought the racing today was pretty good. Having a full field of cars allowed the bottom to materialized and have enough strength down there to be able to keep some momentum rolling and not everybody just being able to be so strong on top.
“Sometimes two and three-wide action and mixing it up guys would get loose and get shuffled out was pretty intense there a few times. I wouldn’t say that much needs to be done. Maybe we just don’t need races with 20 cars, we need 40.”
Despite a clean and competitive 190 laps, the final 17 was where the chaos ensued after three straight wrecks in Turn 3 and two red flags, Busch said that the driver’s mentality doesn’t bode well from the head down when its crunch time at Daytona.
“The brain connection from right up here to the gas pedal doesn’t quite work the same anymore. There’s a lot of give and take, and a lot of guys that play the game and raced the race throughout the beginning portion of the race.
“Then at the end—somehow, someway—there’s that caution within 30 or 40 to go that’s set everybody off pit road, and then it’s chaos after that. I’ve been caught up in plenty of those and it was nice to be in front of that.”
Sunday’s race added Busch’s total of laps led in the Daytona 500 up to 282, second only to Tony Stewart for most laps led that hasn’t won the race.
Busch’s focus will now shift towards the true start of the season as the new rules package is set to go under full affect at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia February 24.