James Buescher emerged as the winner of Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway, but don't ask him how he managed it.
"I somehow snuck through there and beat everybody through and dodged all the bullets," said Buescher, after claiming his first victory in Nationwide in 35 starts. "It's hard to describe the feeling when you make it through and you're the only guy coming to the chequered flag."
It really was lonely at the top for Buescher, who entered the final turn running at the back of the lead pack and outside the top ten, but seconds later was pretty much the last man standing. That was after the the most brutal accident of the race wiped out pretty much all of the leaders.
Polesitter Danica Patrick had led the field to green at the start of the race, and while she soon fell back from the front she was still dealing pretty well with the intriguing mix of pack and two-car tandem drafting that started to emerge. She lost touch with her various drafting partners from time to time but seemed to have good speed even when running solo, and was still well in the action by lap 49.
Unfortunately at that point her team mate for the afternoon, Cole Whitt, tried to link up with her for some drafting - and misjudged it. He bumped her several times through the turn, and the #7 lost stability and dipped down to the infield apron. Patrick tried to correct, and the car took off up the high banking and into the wall. The right front of the car was a mess, and Patrick limped back to the garage for repairs that took most of the rest of the race. Although she managed to return to the track near the end, she was classified with a 38th place finish.
Her team radio was apparently Not Fit For Broadcast as she made clear how unhappy she was with Whitt's actions. She stayed away from the media that swarmed around the JR Motorsports garage until she had cooled down, and by the time she spoke to the press she was able to take a cooler line.
"I don't think it's ever great when teammates come together, so we'll have to figure out what happened and move forward," she said simply. "We were just doing big pack racing and went down into three, got a little tap, got a little bit sideways, saved it, and then just got hit again and couldn't save it."
“There's not much to really tell her,” said Whitt in turn. "I got into the back of her ... I was just trying to get hooked up in a two-car tandem," he explained. "I got hold of her once on the backstretch and she got off, and tried to get back [to me] and when I got into her, it probably was too late on the straightway, enough to turn her around."
It had been the 19-year-old's first restrictor plate race in a Nationwide car at Daytona and he wasn't blaming Danica for of it. For his part, he said: "Obviously it wasn't intentional."
With Danica out of the running, the crowd went into a brief frenzy when Austin Dillon, driving for the first time in Nationwide in the #3 car made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., worked in a two-car tandem with Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take the lead of the race for a few laps.
There had been cautions for Jason Bowles' engine going up in smoke on lap 30, Mike Bliss crashing on the backstretch on lap 60, Brian Scott losing it and crashing out of turn 4 on lap 74 and Joey Gase's engine going into meltdown on lap 93, but as the race entered the final 20 laps it seemed that the mayhem that had featured in the previous night's Truck race was being successfully avoided by the Nationwide field.
Unfortunately - no. Things were about to get very interesting indeed.
Kyle Busch had been having something of a bipolar sort of race up until then, dropping to the back at first until the team were able to fix a problem with a loose right side window that was affecting aerodynamics. After that, Busch sailed to the front with astonishing ease - only to them have a collision in the pits with luckless Cole Whitt on lap 50 just after Whitt had taken out Patrick. The collision affected the steering of the Kyle Busch Motorsports #54 and once again Busch fell to the back and struggled for pace until his team could straighten out the problem - at which point he was promptly back in business and flying to the front again.
By lap 103 he had hooked up with his brother Kurt and the two were making the rest of the cars look as though they were dawdling around the supermarket car park. They forced their way through the pair of two-car tandem runners at the front of the field and everything got very shaky for all concerned, but everyone commendably held it together. Not so with the cars immediately behind, who were convinced that all of them were about to wreck, and as a result they ended up losing control themselves and sparked a furious multi-car wreck.
Kenny Wallace, Ryan Truex,, Denny Hamlin, Jeremy Clements, Justin Allgaier, Robert Richardson Jr., Michael Annett, T.J. Bell, Reed Sorenson and Johanna Long were among those involved. Allgaier's car was lifted up into the air and onto the hood of Sorenson's car, ripping both cars to shreds, but no one was hurt.
“You've got pack racing and the two-car tandem both and, unfortunately, that doesn't work,” said Allgaier after being released from the medical centre.
“It was just a chain-reaction,” said Denny Hamlin, who is Kyle Busch's Cup team mate at Joe Gibbs Racing. "It looked like Kurt and Kyle got a huge run through the middle and some guys started moving around," he said, adding that this was why he didn't like running Nationwide races these days and preferred to stick to Cup events.
The wreck was so messy that a piece of bodywork became lodged in the SAFER barrier at the point where it rejoined the concrete wall out of turn 4. It resisted all efforts to remove it, so NASCAR were forced to throw a brief four-minute red flag to allow them to do what was necessary to effect repairs.
Now it looked like an eight lap dash to the flag, with fuel unlikely to be an issue unless there was a repeat of Friday night's multiple green-white-chequered attempts to end the race that had sent the Trucks nine laps past the scheduled race distance. The cars got underway again on lap 112 and once again Kyle Busch turbo-charged his brother Kurt into the lead, but it was very crowded up front with the pairings of Tony Stewart with Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with Sam Hornish Jr. making it a three-wide affair. That was never going to end well.
David Ragan ended up being pushed from behind by Trevor Bayne into the back of Hornish, and the impact turned Hornish sideways across the chasing cars, promptly unleashing another round of expensive carnage. This time the casualties included Michael Annett Jr., Danny Efland, Scott Speed, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Eric McClure and Joe Nemechek, as well as Hornish and Ragan and sundry others - 20 cars involved in all.
That pushed the race into a restart on lap 119, which meant green-white-chequered conditions. Fortunately this time the field made it round a full revolution of the 2.5-mile tri-oval and the white flag came out, meaning that no matter what this would be the final lap of the day: whatever flag came out next would freeze the field and decide the result.
Kurt and Kyle Busch were still in front, but being the leader into the final lap at Daytona is akin to having the world's biggest bullseye painted on your backside. The others were coming up fast that the Busch brothers were sitting ducks, no matter how fiercely they tried to block the oncoming storm.
Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne had teamed up and made a run on the outside line that looked all-but-assured to slingshot them into the lead; Tony Stewart and Elliott Sadler were charging from further back on the lower line. Kurt Busch saw all this and tried to move up the track to head off Logano and Bayne, but in doing so he pinched them against the wall - and disaster ensued once more. Contact was made and cars cannoned into one another, with Kyle Busch getting a particularly sharp knock that sent the #54 snapping into a crunching hit against the wall. Fortunately he wasn't hurt, and nor was anyone else who had been caught up in the accident.
“It looked like the leader came up and tried to block and he blocked too late and it pinched the #20 car into the wall," described Sadler from his front row seat.
From further back, Buescher saw the same thing: “Whoever was at the front of the pack started to go up to block the outside line."
“I went to crowd the outside lane and didn't know that there were two cars up there,” explained Kurt Busch. “I thought it was just a single lane ... Man, a lot of tore-up cars."
Cars went everywhere, but a few cars managed to slip through more by luck than by judgement. And then the penny dropped that this was it, the end of the race: the field had been frozen when the caution came out. But when was that, exactly?
It turned out that the yellow had been slightly tardy in coming out. If it had come out sooner then those involved in the accident would still have been well-placed, but the race had run on just long enough to allow the chasing cars to thread their way past the pile-up and get to clear space beyond. And the most fortunate of them all was young James Buescher, who has been outside the top ten going into that final corner but who now was shown as the race winner. He could scarcely believe it.
"It's incredible: this is top of the list for any race car driver to win at - and we did it!" he said, celebrating in victory lane for the first time in his Nationwide career shortly after the wild finish. "They all piled up in front of me, and we made it through!"
Buescher had thought his hopes for a good result were over after he lost his drafting partners, Justin Allgaier and Joe Nemechek, in the earlier incidents.
"Nobody wanted to work with me at the end, we were all on our own in a tandem draft and we just got the best draft we could off of everybody," he said. "When I saw them get together up there, I went to the bottom and kept my foot in it and when they started coming back down the track, I somehow snuck through."
As well as Buescher's maiden series win, two NASCAR Nationwide Series records for Daytona International Speedway were also set by the day's events, with the most lead changed (38) and the most leaders (16) beating the previous tallies of 35 lead changes among 12 different leaders.
Now all eyes turn to the Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon, with the big question now being: will things calm down for the Cup race, or will the Big One exceed even what we've seen in the Truck and Nationwide races so far?Full race results available.