DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On a night when Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated the life of its late co-chairman by sweeping the podium in the 61st Daytona 500, Kyle Busch was left disappointed after missing out on a win in The Great American Race for the 14th time.
Busch, who has 194 wins across NASCAR’s top three series, has come oh-so-close in several of his prior attempts to win the sport’s biggest prize. However, the Harley J. Earl Trophy continues to elude him.
Sunday night, Busch came as close as he ever has to finally cracking the code to Daytona 500 victory lane. He took the lead from teammate and eventual winner Denny Hamlin on a restart with 10 to go, just before the dreaded Big One broke out behind them and collected 21 cars in its wake.
At that point, Busch appeared to be in the cat-bird’s seat, and despite another yellow flag he held serve out front and was the leader for a two-lap shootout in regulation to decide the event.
However, Busch’s team relayed to him that working together with his teammate was called off at that point – per Hamlin’s crew – and Busch lost the lead to Hamlin on the ensuing restart moments before a third multi-car accident sent the race into overtime.
Busch never got the lead back after that, forced to watch as Hamlin drove on to victory in the Daytona 500 for the second time in four years, while his own goose-egg in the win column in NASCAR’s biggest race remained in his 14th try.
As disappointed as he was after the race, Busch still saw the good in the win from a team standpoint.
“I’d have much rather have been the one to win the race and be in victory lane and celebrating with my team and with everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing and being a part of the J.D. celebration,” Busch said. “But in the end, you couldn’t be more thrilled for the 500 people back at Joe Gibbs Racing that knew and respected and looked up to J.D. for the person that he was and the relationships that he gave all of us.”
The Las Vegas native – who has won NASCAR’s other three crown-jewel races, as well as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship – remains stymied in NASCAR’s most-prestigious event.
Prior to Sunday night, his best ‘500’ finish was a third-place run in 2016, ironically the first year that Hamlin won The Great American Race in a photo finish with Martin Truex Jr. at the checkered flag.
Teamwork may have been his undoing this year, however.
Busch let Hamlin down in front of him on the overtime restart, believing that “strength in numbers” was the key to getting a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into victory lane.
While he was right, that philosophy ended up costing him his own shot at winning the Daytona 500.
“First and foremost, our goal is always to try to make sure that we at least get a JGR car to victory lane,” Busch noted of the waning laps. “(Denny) didn’t want to do it (work together) the previous restart, but then when he got the lead, he wanted to do it again (at the end).
“It is what it is. At least we got a JGR car in Victory Lane,” Busch continued. “That’s the big picture. That’s what matters, and we move on.”
Busch will move on to Atlanta Motor Speedway next week, where he’s won eight times between the Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
However, the sting of losing out on what he called his “best shot” at winning the Daytona 500 will likely weigh on Busch’s mind in the meantime.
“Overall, it’s certainly bittersweet,” he said. It’s awesome to see a JGR car in victory lane … with everything that’s gone on this offseason and all that, but it’s very, very bittersweet for all those that support us and all my team guys that work so hard to try to get to victory lane and get our own Daytona 500 win. This was, I think, the best shot I’ve ever had to finally win one.
“He’s got two. I’ve got none. We just have to move on and go to the next race.”