DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kurt Busch had victory seemingly in his sights during the closing stages of Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, but ended up on the wrong side of Mother Nature.
Busch was the leader with 34 laps to go in the Independence Day weekend classic, having stayed out under caution after a multi-car accident that decimated the frontrunners and with weather in the area.
However, NASCAR officials gave the “one lap to green” call over the radio working lap 127, leading Busch’s crew chief Matt McCall to bring his driver down pit road for service in anticipation of the resumption and making sure Busch’s No. 1 Global Poker Chevrolet was good on fuel to the finish.
As it turned out, that call backfired thanks to an ill-timed bolt of lightning.
A lightning strike within eight miles of Daytona Int’l Speedway as the field was coming off turn two forced the immediate red-flagging of the race, with cars brought down pit road and Busch suddenly relegated from first back to 10th in the running order.
That led to an hour-long delay, and just when it appeared the race would get back underway – with drivers strapped into their cars and the lightning clock at zero – another strike hit within the eight-mile “danger zone” and forced an additional delay.
By that time, heavy rain was building in around the speedway, and around 5 p.m. the deluge finally hit.
Roughly half an hour later, the race was called official 33 laps short of its scheduled distance, with NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley taking the most-improbable of wins by staying out when Busch pitted, while Busch was left frustrated and feeling snake-bitten at the World Center of Racing.
A top-10 finish was far from any consolation to the driver who felt a “judgment call” took the win from his fingertips.
“I feel like we were in a really good position to win the race … and it’s just a matter of when the one random lightning bolt comes down to decide when you make the call,” said Busch after the race. “It was a judgment call on their (NASCAR’s) part.
“The way I feel, they had to make a judgment call and they made a judgment call.”
Busch was one of the few drivers from the lead pack who escaped unscathed after Austin Dillon was turned from the lead by Clint Bowyer on lap 119, triggering a 17-car pileup that eliminated numerous contenders.
It was a day of chaos that ended up feeling like a game of survival, according to Busch, given the differences of racing at Daytona compared to its sister track – Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
“Yeah, I think we did pretty good to finish 10th, considering everything that went on,” Busch noted. “It was a different race because the manufacturers were working together, and then with the handling aspects as well. At Talladega, you could hold it wide open pretty easy. At Daytona, you’re slipping and sliding and you’re trying to stay teamed-up with the guys that you want to be with.
“Today was definitely more challenging, but we made the best out of it that we could.”
Asked if he felt NASCAR could have done anything differently to prevent what happened to him at the end of Sunday’s rain-shortened affair, Busch was quick and witty in his response.
“Oh, we could have started the race at 11 a.m. and got a full race in,” Busch quipped. “But we didn’t.”