NASCAR & Auto Racing

Plenty of late drama, but did Daytona 500 lose too many big names early on?

Daytona 500 champ Kurt Busch: This place will challenge every emotion

Kurt Busch won his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, emerging from a crash-filled race. Video by Drew Davison.
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Kurt Busch won his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, emerging from a crash-filled race. Video by Drew Davison.

Signature driver after signature driver saw their days end early with wrecks. There were hardly any recognizable names with 50 laps left in the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s Super Bowl.

Gone were the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Danica Patrick. Rising stars such as Texas native Chris Buescher, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez were victims of early wrecks too.

At one point, Cole Whitt and Aric Almirola were running 1-2. That couldn’t have been good for TV ratings.

It looked like Chase Elliott, a “big name of the future,” might salvage a crash-filled race. He had the lead in the final laps until running out of gas and losing it with three laps to go.

“Disappointing finish to a good day,” said Elliott, the pole-sitter who has yet to win a Cup race.

Another youngster, Kyle Larson, had a brief lead before running out of gas himself.

In the end, the day belonged to veteran driver Kurt Busch. He charged to the lead on the final lap and held on for his first Daytona 500 victory. Ryan Blaney, another promising young driver, finished second, and AJ Allmendinger was third.

The more that I’ve run this race, the more that I just throw caution to the wind — let it rip and just elbows out.

Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch

For Kurt Busch, it’s a well-earned victory. He finished runner-up in this race three times and finally got over the hurdle. The same can be said for his team’s co-owner, Tony Stewart, who never won the prestigious race in 17 starts in his illustrious driving career.

“This car’s completely thrashed,” said Busch, a fitting description for just about every car in the garage. “There’s not a straight panel on it. … The more that I’ve run this race, the more that I just throw caution to the wind — let it rip and just elbows out. That’s what we did.”

The most touching moment may have been hearing from Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, who got emotional about winning at his home track.

Tony Stewart never won the Daytona 500 as a driver, but he went to Victory Lane as an owner with Kurt Busch. Video by Drew Davison.

There were plenty of positives coming from the site of NASCAR’s marquee event, which was sold out and had plenty of action and drama throughout the day. You can’t go wrong with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski holding a news conference, courtesy of Monster Energy, NASCAR’s newest sponsor, and the race itself saw eight cautions, 18 different leaders and 37 lead changes.

But it’s fair to wonder just how much this race resonated with your casual sports fan with so many big names dropping out early.

Just think — 53-year-old Michael Waltrip finished eighth. Waltrip had an average finish of 32nd in his last five Daytona 500s.

Earnhardt, the sport’s most popular driver, completed just over half of the 200 laps (106). Patrick finished only 128 laps, Johnson 127 and Kyle Busch 103, as he went on to blame Goodyear tires for his forgettable day.

Regardless of the reason, when Kyle Busch blew his right rear tire going into Turn 3 with 97 laps to go, it marked the beginning of what was to come. That wreck alone collected the likes of Earnhardt, Jones and veteran Matt Kenseth and forced the race to be red-flagged for 17 minutes.

Less than 20 laps later, a wreck that involved 17 cars eliminated drivers such as Johnson, Patrick, Buescher and Clint Bowyer.

Just a lot of aggression. Way too early in my opinion.

Jimmie Johnson, one of 15 drivers whose day ended in crashes

And the wrecks continued after that, claiming veterans such as Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray along the way.

In the end, 15 cars finished on the lead lap and 15 were done in by wrecks.

“Just a lot of aggression,” Johnson said. “Way too early in my opinion.”

Said Patrick: “It is a real shame. I feel like we could have been a contender at the end — for sure we could have been an influencer.”

Maybe it had something to do with NASCAR introducing “stages” to add intrigue to the early parts of races. Maybe it’s just par for the course at a track such as Daytona International Speedway. Or maybe it’s just because this is the Super Bowl of NASCAR.

Either way, losing big names in bunches isn’t good for the sport. Unless, of course, you’re one of the drivers who survived the carnage.

“I thought it was a really good Daytona 500,” said Kasey Kahne, who finished seventh and was among the 18 leaders on the day. “Glad to be a part of it.”

Let’s see if the viewing audience agreed.

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

Actor and Texas native Owen Wilson is an honorary starter for today's Daytona 500. Video by Drew Davison.

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