Kurt Busch was hoping that victory for the #1 Phoenix Racing car on Friday night at Daytona international Speedway might rustle up some sponsorship for the car in the near future, after the conspicuously bright orange and very battered car won the Subway Jalapeno 250 for owner James Finch.
"It's just the energy James Finch has for Daytona, he wanted his cars orange so they could be seen up front so that car could be recognized without a sponsor on it," said the ecstatic driver after a famous win in the car that he'd dubbed 'the great pumpkin' during the week. "And we drove an unsponsored car into victory lane tonight!"
Busch had already been to victory lane once in 2012, but that had been in the Kyle Busch Motorsport #54 car. This was his first win in Nationwide for his regular Cup team, Phoenix Racing, and came just weeks after his relationship with Finch and the organisation was put under strain after his latest brush with NASCAR authority saw him suspended from racing for a week after making comments to the media while under probation.
All that was forgotten on Friday night, however, when Busch claimed the chequered flag in Daytona - thanks in no small part to a final push from late drafting partner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. which put them ahead of Michael Annett and Austin Dillon. Busch's margin of victory over Stenhouse was ultimately listed as just 0.054s.
The race saw six cautions during its sub-two hour running time, and the number of lead changes was a new record at 42 and the number of different leaders on Friday equalled the existing record of 16.
Stenhouse Jr. had started from pole position after Austin Dillon's qualifying time was disallowed for a technical infringement and the #3 sent to the back for the start of the race. Stenhouse Jr. paired up with Danica Patrick for drafting, but the pair were quickly passed by Cole Whitt being pushed by Kevin Harvick down the backstraight.
Joey Lgano and Elliott Sadler had also paired up and took the lead on lap 4, while Kurt Busch found an early boost from his brother Kyle but the two failed to go in front before the first caution of the evening for the stalled #11 car of Brian Scott.
Penske team mates Sam Hornish Jr and Brad Keselowski paired up to take the lead for the restart, but Keselowski ended up switching to support Danica Patrick when she burst through into the lead on lap 18. The Busch boys took over for a period, with Mike Wallace and Kevin Harvick taking over briefly when climbing engine temperatures forced the brothers to switch running order on lap 31.
It was Wallace who triggered the second caution of the night when he spun in turn 2 on lap 41, and the Busch's teamwork was hit by a pit lane penalty for Kyle when a tyre got away from a crew member and the #54 got served with a drive-thru penalty. That left Kurt casting around for a new partner and he found it in the form of Austin Dillon who was back in the top four after his back row start.
Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick teamed up for the restart, but that fell apart pretty quickly and Patrick had to rely on Cole Whitt to keep her in the lead pack while Joey Logano and Elliott Sadler briefly went in front. Harvick paired up instead with the recovering Mike Wallace, and the two had just gone to the front and were attempting to switch positions between themselves when a trademark Daytona "big one" broke out on lap 65: Wallace moved down, contacted James Buescher, rebounded back up the track into Brad Keselowski and set off a 15-car wreck that also caught up Sadler, Whitt, both Busches, Clint Bowyer and Michael Annett among others.
Keselowski and Wallace were done for the night and Buescher was also out of the running, but others like Sadler and Annett escaped with mainly cosmetic damage. Kurt Busch came out of it badly crumpled but still fast after six visits to pit lane for repairs under the ensuing caution, while Kyle's car was also running but somewhat more impaired.
Danica Patrick had escaped the wreck by just having pushed Justin Allgaier to the lead before it all happened, and the duo duly led at the restart on lap 72 but quickly lost touch and plummeted backwards; instead it was Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch going to the front just before the next caution of the evening on lap 76, when Brad Sweet spun after contact with Stenhouse Jr. Patrick's day was over for good at the next restart when Jeffrey Earnhardt got spun - by more contact from Stenhouse Jr. - and collected several cars in a mini-restaging of the big one, including Patrick herself heading into a big hit with the SAFER barrier
Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano competed with Sam Hornish Jr. and Kurt Busch for the lead at the next restart with only a dozen laps to go till the end. Busch found better form by switching back to support Austin Dillon and Hornish hopped over to Justin Allgaier and the quartet were running incredibly close when the dash to the chequered flag was postponed by a final caution for debris on lap 96, forcing the race into a green-white-chequered finish and extending the race distance by an extra 2.5 mile lap.
It was Logano who emerged with the lead at the restart, with Busch seemingly shuffled out of contention and into the lonely middle lane. But Stenhouse Jr. - who hadn't had the best of showings with drafting partners all things considered - saw an opportunity to make something happen.
"We didn't have many people to work with, and I saw him hung out there in the centre, and I got a good restart and jumped to the middle and caught up with the #1," he explained. "He was fast all night, and I just pushed him to the win."
With the extra help, Busch managed to force his way up to the high line and go for the finish line. Stenhouse Jr. thought about going for the win himself, but realised that it just wasn't on when he saw Austin Dillon charging up behind them with Michael Annett.
"I was hoping I could make a move there, but I saw the #3 and everybody coming, so I kind of tried to duck out and block them, and we ended up second," he said. "It was exciting, and I hope the fans enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun."
It had certainly been a vintage Daytona race, with plenty of fast pack racing and drafting, a couple of big wrecks to keep the fans happy, and a winner overcoming the odds and adversity to make it to victory lane. Kurt Busch couldn't have been prouder of the car he'd dismissed as the 'the great pumpkin' during the week.
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