Monster victory: Kurt Busch wins first Daytona 500 on last-lap pass

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 59th running of the Daytona 500 was a story of victory lane debuts Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

A driver, a team (with a new manufacturer) and a series title sponsor all celebrated for the first time on stock-car racing’s biggest stage.

Kurt Busch swept around the outside of Kyle Larson on a last-lap pass to win the Daytona 500, his first restrictor-plate victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished 0.228 seconds ahead of Ryan Blaney in leading only the final circuit at the 2.5-mile oval. AJ Allmendinger was third, followed by Aric Almirola and Paul Menard. Larson, who ran out of fuel, finished 12th.

Busch’s team switched to Ford for the 2017 season and won in its debut Sunday with the manufacturer.

“It just got crazy and wild,” said Busch, who rebounded from being involved in a backstretch wreck on Lap 128 of 200. “It was one of the smartest chess games I have seen out there. All the hard work that Ford and SHR put into this.

“Here we are in victory lane. I can’t believe it.”

His No. 41 Fusion is sponsored by Monster Energy, which also is entering its first season as NASCAR’s new title sponsor.

“I tried not to put any extra pressure on my shoulders,” said Busch, the eight different driver to win the Daytona 500 in the past eight races. “I tried to rely on my team’s strengths and not focus on what I have been through with Monster Energy the last six years. They are a strong, big company, and they have chosen to be the entitlement sponsor, and I can’t be happier to do the job I am supposed to do as a Monster athlete, which is to win podiums and races.”

Busch had been winless in his previous 63 starts at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway (which require restrictor plates to reduce speeds).

“There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win, I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past,” he said. “My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go, and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind.”

It also was the first Daytona 500 win as a car owner for Tony Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season with a winless record in 17 starts in the race.

“The look on (co-owner) Gene Haas’ face right now, that smile, make it all worth it,” Stewart said. “It has been a really long hard winter, and I am so proud of everyone at SHR and Ford Performance. They really worked their tails off to get ready. Doug Yates and everybody at Roush Yates Engines brought unbelievable power all week.

“It was a crazy race, even crazier to sit and watch it from a pit box finally. If I had known all I had to do was retire, I would have retired 17 years ago if I knew it was what it took to win the race.”

Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, hails from Daytona Beach.

“This is unbelievable,” Gibson said on Fox. “My mom, my dad, we sacrificed everything to put us in racing. I can’t thank them enough. Thanks Dad, Mom, I love you. I have a great family that put us in racing, and it’s just so emotional to come to my track and win. Unbelievable.”

Joey Logano was sixth, followed by Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Trevor Bayne.

Chase Elliott, seeking his first NASCAR victory on the sport’s grandest stage, ran out of fuel while leading with three laps remaining. He finished 14th.

Who had a good race: Almirola gave a boost to Richard Petty Motorsports, which contracted to one car in the offseason. The No. 43 Ford led and ran in the top 10 for much of the second half.

Blaney rebounded in a backup car, taking the lead with some aggressive moves to score his career-best finish.

Almirola and Menard scored career-best Daytona 500 finishes, and Allmendinger tied his best at Daytona.

Who had a bad race: How much time do you have?

Kyle Busch’s recent trouble at Daytona continued when he lost control in Turn 4, and his No. 18 Toyota collected Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones in the wreck.

Corey LaJoie’s Daytona 500 debut will be remembered for one of the more egregious rookie mistakes in the race’s history – a near head-on collision with the frontstretch wall after losing control while missing the entrance to the pits.

Former Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray was at the focal point of multiple multi-car pileups that took out Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Daniel Suarez.

Notable: Kahne led for the first time since Oct. 25, 2015 at Talladega Superspeedway. … Kyle Busch won the first stage of the 2017 season (and in the history of points races in NASCAR’s premier series). … Kevin Harvick won the second stage. … Both Busch and Harvick crashed after picking up 10 points. … There were only five of 40 cars that weren’t listed as in a crash.

Quote of the race: “I really enjoyed the whole week. We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 37th in his return after missing the second half of the 2016 season (concussion).

What’s next: The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, 2:46 p.m., March 5 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Fox.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson involved in minor fender bender while leaving Fontana

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Kyle Larson‘s spectacular weekend at Auto Club Speedway — winning both Saturday’s Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Auto Club 400 NASCAR Cup event — left him feeling good.

But shortly upon exiting the facility, Larson and several others were involved in a fender-bender right outside the Speedway. Larson was a passenger, not the driver.

No one was injured, Larson tweeted.

But somehow, isn’t that strange fate?

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson’s Fontana win shows continued maturing as a driver

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Kyle Larson finally broke his streak of three straight runner-up finishes with his win in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, the crew discussed his win as well as his maturation as a driver.