It proved not to be the sort of return to Daytona International Speedway that Kyle Busch had been hoping for.
On his first day back at at the 2.5-mile circuit following his February race crash that left him with fractures to his right leg and left foot and put him out of competition for three months, Busch was among eight drivers who was forced to unload their backup cars after being involved in a multi-car accident just ten minutes into the first practice session for Sunday's Coke Zero 400.
CLICK: Full Friday practice times from Daytona International Speedway.
Busch was spun after being bumped from behind by Penske's Brad Keselowski. The #18 was then hit side-on by Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle and the developing wreck then caught up multiple cars including two of Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing team mates, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.
Also involved were Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing), Jamie McMurray (Ganassi), Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing), Trevor Bayne (Roush) and Sam Hornish Jr. (Richard Petty Motorsports.) With the exception of Keselowski, all those involved will have to use their backup cars for the rest of the weekend.
"Just looks like the #2 got into my left rear and he got away unscathed and trashed everybody else's stuff," simmered Busch. "It's his fault and he caused it, but I've also probably been in the same boat and caused them before.
"It's practice. You don't need to be up a guy's left rear. I rolled out and got out of the gas I don't know how many times during that session just to not run into the car in front of me just because it's not that time of the game to go," he added. "It's frustrating and it's not at all what these guys pour all their blood, sweat and tears into. We wreck in practice and that's not very smart."
"I saw Kyle and Brad Keselowski wrecking and those guys are two of the best at this. That's the way it goes," said Busch's team mate Carl Edwards. "It's 90-something degrees out here and it's slick and everybody is trying to get the best lap they can for weather in case qualifying were to be rained out or something. Just the nature of the beast."
"It didn't look like anyone was doing anything stupid at that point to me," said Biffle. "Quite frankly when the accident happened we were technically single file in my eyes. I have to watch the replay to know for sure. These cars get bumping around and suck up quicker than what you might think. Stuff can happen quick."
"Everything happened so quickly," added Truex. "Cars were starting to check up and I then saw the #18 starting to get sideways. I hit the brakes to try to slow down but for some reason our car just went straight into the wall. We have a lot of damage and will be going to a backup car. We'll be fine."
For his own part, Keselowski took some but not all of the blame: "I think we probably had some shared equity in what happened. I could have probably rolled out a little more than I did - because I did - and we probably could have raced each other with a little more room."
"It's just a bummer to see cars get torn up," Keselowski told NBC Sports
. "Nobody has any fun with that. I know these crew guys, it's Daytona, it's July and it's 100 degrees out, they're not enjoying working on a backup car. This stinks."
After the accident was cleaned-up the session resumed and Keselowski was able to head back out unaffected by the incident. Three-time Daytona winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped the first practice with what proved to be the fastest lap of the day at 44.492s (202.284mph) in the Hendrick Motorsports #88, putting him 0.048s faster than RCR's Austin Dillon. Clint Bowyer (Michael Waltrip Racing), Paul Menard (RCR) and Trevor Bayne also finished within a tenth of a second of Earnhardt's time.
Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick was 35th in the times in the Stewart-Haas Racing #4, while defending race winner Aric Almirola was only 37th in the RPM #43.
Harvick did much better in the second 55-minute practice later in the afternoon, when he was part of the four-car SHR line-up to sweep the top of the timing screens. Danica Patrick recorded the best time of the session clocking in at 45.424s (198.133mph) putting her 0.042s ahead of team mate Kurt Busch, while Harvick himself was third fastest ahead of the team co-owner Tony Stewart in fourth.
After the quartet of SHR cars came a foursome of Hendrick entries with Kasey Kahne a fraction ahead of Jeff Gordon with Earnhardt following up his earlier pace with the seventh fastest time still just 0.179s off Patrick's benchmark effort. Jimmie Johnson was some way further back in eighth ahead of Wood Brothers' Ryan Blaney while Carl Edwards bounced back from his earlier set-back with the tenth fastest time in the backup car.
Of the other drivers involved in that early accident, Keselowski was 14th fastest in second practice, Kyle Busch 16th, Newman 21st, Bayne 25th, Truex 26th Biffle 27th and McMurray 28th. Sam Hornish Jr. was the slowest of the 41 cars taking part in the final practice of the day.
Qualifying for this weekend's Cup race will be held on Saturday afternoon at 4.35pm local time (9.35pm BST) with the race itself scheduled for Sunday evening at 7.45pm (12.45am BST). The NASCAR Xfinity Series is also in action this weekend with the Subway Firecracker 250 set for 7.45pm on Saturday.
Earlier on Friday, Busch had returned to Halifax Health Medical Center where he had received post-accident treatment after his February accident. Asked how he was feeling, Busch said "A lot better than the last time I was here!" as arrived to thank the staff for the care he received during his stay there.
"I just can't thank you all enough for the hospitality and the help," Busch told them. "Thank you so much for the care that you give. This is a beautiful hospital, and the work that you do is beautiful, too. Just keep it up."
Despite his long lay-off, Busch put himself within touching distance of making this year's Chase championship play-offs after winning last week's race at Sonoma Raceway. However he still needs to finish the regular season in at least 30th place in the points standings to be eligible, and that means finishing on average in 14th position in every event between now and the Richmond night race in September - something that won't be helped by Friday's practice mishap.
See full Friday practice time from Daytona International Speedway.