Las Vegas’ Busch brothers still chasing first Daytona 500 win

Updated February 25, 2017 - 11:15 pm

For a majority of stock car racing fans, the Daytona 500 is the Great American Race.

For a select group of stock car racing drivers, it’s the One That Got Away.

Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, Mark Martin, Buck Baker, Terry Labonte, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Bobby Labonte, Ricky Rudd.

These are names with which any driver normally would be proud to have his listed.

They also are names of drivers who have never won the Daytona 500, something Las Vegas’ Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch are reminded of whenever gentlemen and Danica Patrick start their engines for another NASCAR season.

Each brother has won a Cup Series championship. They are a combined 0-for-26 at the Daytona 500. Kurt is 0-for-15. Kyle is 0-for-11.

What does it say about the Daytona 500, which will be run for the 59th time Sunday, when it takes a seven-time series champion and legend such as Dale Earnhardt 20 years to finally win one?

That Michael Waltrip won it twice — and won just two other times in 783 races over 32 years?

That Trevor Bayne (no other wins in 125 starts) has won it, that Ward Burton (four other wins in 375 starts) and Derrike Cope (one other win in 409 starts) have won it? And that the Busch brothers and those other stars haven’t?

It says you don’t have to necessarily be great to win the Daytona 500, and it helps if Lady Luck comes along for the ride.

KYLE: DAYTONA A BIG CRAPSHOOT

Kyle Busch finished 38th in his first Daytona 500 in 2005. He was 41st in 2009 and 34th in 2013. A fourth in 2008, an eighth in 2011 and a third last year are his only top 10 finishes in the 500, and this is a guy who leaves the top 10 as a forwarding address.

The restrictor plate is a great equalizer on the big tracks, Busch said from Daytona this past week.

A restrictor plate is a device that limits the power of a racing engine. The result: Cars usually run together in a giant pack (instead of smaller packs breaking away), which often leads to multicar pileups that dramatically impact the standings.

It turns a big-time stock car race into a big-time crapshoot, Busch says.

“All the restrictor plate races, it seems it takes a lot more luck than a few years back,” said the steely 31-year-old who won the Cup Series championship in 2015 and almost repeated in 2016.

“Daytona is at the top of everyone’s list, and everybody feels like they’ve got a chance to win. At the other racetracks, 15 guys have a chance to win. At Daytona, there are 40.”

Racing at Daytona is a 200 mph chess match. You try to avoid the big pileup and put your car in position for the inevitable and frantic race to the checkered flag. Which is what Busch did last year. Which is why he calls that race the one that got away.

Matt Kenseth was leading, with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin lined up behind, to push Kenseth to the victory. Busch said he considered pulling to the outside line and going for the win, but that wouldn’t have been fair to Kenseth.

Instead, Hamlin tried it.

Kenseth tried to block and almost lost control. Hamlin edged Martin Truex for the win by .011 seconds — the closest Daytona 500 finish. Kenseth finished 14th.

Maybe this year Busch will be the one trying the outside groove at the finish.

And maybe he won’t.

“Winning the Daytona 500, you can only do so much,” Busch said. “A lot of it’s car, a lot of it’s luck, a lot of it’s skill. It’s all embedded in there. One of the biggest factors I’d say is just it being your day and having luck on your side.”

KURT: DAYTONA OWNS ME

Kurt Busch finished 26th in his first Daytona 500 in 2001. Midway through, Dale Earnhardt flipped him the bird. Busch called it his “Welcome to Daytona” moment. (It would become an insignificant footnote when Earnhardt was killed on the last lap.)

Busch finished fourth the next year and second the year after that. In 2005, he ran second again. He had won the Cup Series championship in 2004, and most figured his first Daytona 500 win was just around the corner.

After moving from Roush Racing to Penske Racing South, he finished second again in 2008 when instead of going for the win, he pushed teammate Ryan Newman to victory. Newman thanked him in Victory Lane.

Busch would have another chance at Daytona glory in 2011.

“I had everything going my way,” said the 38-year-old, who married his polo-playing girlfriend, Ashley Van Metre, during the offseason and seems to have found a new maturity. “I won the Clash. I won the qualifying Duel. I was in position on the last lap of the 500, and I didn’t pull it off.

“I’ve been close many times. This track has been tough on me. It owns me.

“I’ve got to do a better job at being better in the clutch moments at the end, to capitalize on my track position, to hold off the guys from behind and to win it this time, instead of figuring out what I need to do better and finishing second.”

Things are looking up. Busch’s new Ford ran strong in Thursday’s qualifying race and carried its driver to a third-place finish.

On the esoteric side, since the last time the big stock cars thundered around the Daytona’s high banks, Busch’s beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It had been 108 years since that had happened, which makes Busch’s 0-for-15 in the Great American Race look like a foul tip.

“You always find motivation in all directions when you come to Daytona, and the Cubs winning definitely helps with feeling that anything can be accomplished as long as you position yourself for it,” he said.

Kris Bryant, another guy from Las Vegas with the initials K.B., made the final assist in Game 7.

Just sayin’.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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