DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 26:  Cars race during the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Ryan: What Brian France was trying to say before Daytona 500 … and other stray thoughts

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Imagine this beginning to the drivers meeting at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming Sunday.

NASCAR chairman Brian France, sporting a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots and a faded pair of Wranglers, strides with purpose to a mic at the front of the room and says something akin to the following:

“OK, boys, I don’t usually talk competition, but this is the last race on this old pavement. You’ve got to be careful and conserve those tires! And don’t come looking to NASCAR if you wear them tires out too much! That’s on you, boys — not Goodyear. Let’s go racin’!”

Wouldn’t that seem slightly odd from France, whose greatest strength as NASCAR czar has been his boardroom comfort with cutting multimillion-dollar (sometimes multibillion-dollar) deals that have provided long-term financial security?

Well, it wasn’t that far from what happened before Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

In an address and approach that even France twice admitted was unusual for him, he commandeered the start of the prerace meeting and spent about 90 seconds sternly admonishing Cup drivers for something they hadn’t done yet.

NASCAR chief racing developmental officer Steve O’Donnell tried to explain what France meant after the race.

“His point today was just the way we have seen the racing play out,” O’Donnell told a small group of reporters. “Drivers are really learning and getting used to the pack, and so his point was we know drivers are going to be aggressive. Don’t come to NASCAR if something were to happen if you attempted to block.”

But had any drivers recently complained to NASCAR about blocking? “No.”

Had he planned to make that statement? “Not sure. You’d have to ask Brian.”

OK, so how to unpack this?

First, it is peculiar to take a stand on scolding drivers who feel aggrieved after blocking, because it virtually never happens.

It’s the drivers who are blocked who get angry and vow retribution. They don’t look for help from NASCAR, though. The justice gets meted out at their own hands, i.e. with a flick of the wheel into someone’s rear fender.

And for the drivers who block and then get dealt vicious payback? They usually provide a sheepish shrug and “I was just trying to do everything I could to win.”

How would it make sense to lobby NASCAR to punish a driver for action that another driver forced them into taking? Well, it doesn’t.

So what were the point of France’s words, which sometimes can be opaque enough to require translation?

Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that last week was rough as far as the leadership of NASCAR being questioned, and this certainly seemed a visible move by France to dispel the notion he isn’t engaged (as others have intimated in the past).

In the context of the conclusion of Speedweeks, his point also seems clearer. Factoring in two red flags, the Xfinity race went well past three hours Saturday because of a vast array of moronic driving, which also was evident during Friday’s truck race.

NASCAR couldn’t afford to have its signature event marred by rampant amateurism, and that almost seemed as if it were the underlying thrust of France’s comments, which might have been taken thusly by some: “This is the biggest race of the year. Don’t screw this up like the young punks the past two days with dumb blocking moves and then whine about it.”

–The debut of stages made pacing a theme for scrutiny, but they had nothing to do with the biggest problem of elapsed time at Daytona International Speedway: the speed of the track cleanup.

The Xfinity race was marred by two red flags that took more than 45 minutes, and the Daytona 500 race was stopped for 17 minutes to tidy the messes left by a relatively benign six-car crash that usually doesn’t cause such a long break.

During his weekly spot on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, O’Donnell said improving the efficiency of track cleanup was the single-most important issue to fix from Speedweeks.

A broken splitter stuck underneath a SAFER barrier was a culprit Saturday and another splitter got stuck Sunday. O’Donnell said it took too long to remove the splitter the second time and also to get the oil off the track. “Anything we can do to speed that process up, we’ll do it.”

From a vantage point in the press box, some of the cleanup problems could be attributed to poor execution with trucks failing to put SpeedyDry down in the right places to absorb the oil (some of which was against the wall, which makes the process difficult on a high-banked track). That required multiple passes to address the mess.

This might necessitate NASCAR rethinking its approach to track cleanup as it did with track drying a few years ago.

The problem with the splitter likely will be reviewed at the NASCAR R&D Center this week. Again, it’s more challenging to remove debris from a barrier at a high-banked track, but it’s worth analyzing if there’s a reason why those pieces detached from cars during wrecks on consecutive days.

There’s been some debate over the merits of Kurt Busch’s win in the Daytona 500 squelching a triumph featuring some of the youthful storylines that seemed promising in the closing laps. NASCAR certainly has been pushing the narratives of Chase Elliott (who was leading until running out of fuel until two laps remaining), Kyle Larson (leading on the last lap when his tank ran dry) and runner-up Ryan Blaney.

That said, the career arc of crew chief Tony Gibson, a local hero born and raised in Daytona Beach, undoubtedly makes Busch’s win a heartwarming one. Affectionately known as “Old Man,” Gibson is one of the truly good-hearted dudes in the NASCAR garage, and his loyalty to his team deservedly was rewarded Sunday.

NASCAR heavily has promoted the next wave of young stars, so it’s hard to see how it would have been displeased with Elliott, Larson or Blaney winning. But officials privately took umbrage at the suggestion that Busch’s win somehow didn’t “save” Sunday’s race … because they believe the race (and its late drama around fuel mileage) stood on its own merits regardless of who won or how many caution flags occurred in the process.

Was this the weirdest Daytona 500 since the 2011 victory by Trevor Bayne in the rise of tandem racing?

It certainly seemed so. Hard to recall any Cup race in recent memory when so many favorites were eliminated before crunch time.

–Speaking of Bayne, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he heard from some angry competitors in the wake of Daytona. Ditto for 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, who seemed to race as if his job were on the line in the season opener.

–Now that Kurt Busch finally has a restrictor-plate win in his 64th attempt, who are the most talented active drivers without a Daytona 500 win?

The list starts with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. But there’s a significant dropoff to the next group. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson both proved in the past two seasons they are worthy of winning here, but neither has endured the kind of agony and near-misses that made Dale Earnhardt’s quest for a Daytona 500

Keselowski and Kyle Busch seemingly are starting to be tortured by the same demons that plagued Earnhardt for so long … and seemed to follow Tony Stewart for most of his Daytona 500 career.

At least Smoke finally had something to celebrate Sunday after 17 winless shots.

–There were some facets of Monster’s debut as title sponsor (such as a lack of signage and activation at Daytona) that seemed curious. But bringing Rob Gronkowski to the Daytona 500 was a huge coup for the energy drink brand.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the New England Patriots or bro party culture, it still is easy to be amused by the zeal and zest for life incessantly embodied by the man playfully known as “Gronk.”

Gronk attend. NASCAR win.

A story of heart: How Tony Gibson and Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500

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When Kurt Busch crossed the finish line to win the Daytona 500 Sunday, Tony Stewart was sitting on the pit box next to Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson.

While Stewart was jumping up and down in celebration of the win, for a split-second, he wondered if Gibson was alright or if maybe he should call paramedics.

“He was comatose,” Stewart said of Gibson. “He doesn’t move. He put his head back. Did he pass out? I had to shake him a bit.

“He just sat there the whole last lap and when I saw the door open, I started jumping because I knew what was coming. He just never flinched until it was over. He just laid his head back like he was getting a suntan.”

Of the 100,000-plus people at Daytona International Speedway and millions more watching on TV as the exciting finish played out, Gibson was arguably the coolest. It was almost as if he was channeling Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman and his trademark line, “What, me worry?”

Nah, not Gibson. He and Busch had this. It would be their fourth Cup win together, but the biggest by far.

When the checkered flag waved – and while Gibson said Stewart “was like a frog jumping up and down” – Gibson just sat there for a few moments, soaking in all the sights and sounds, still not totally convinced that he and his driver had just won The Great American Race.

“You won the 500,” Stewart told Gibson, who responded with a smile, admitting, “I wasn’t sure I did or not.”

Over his long NASCAR career, Gibson had been part of previous Daytona 500 wins with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a team member.

But Sunday was something he never had experienced before: it was the first time he – Tony Gibson, NASCAR’s self-professed “Old Man” – would leave his hometown of Daytona Beach as a Daytona 500-winning crew chief.

Kurt Busch and Tony Gibson have now visited victory lane together four times in the NASCAR Cup Series, including this win at Richmond in 2015. (Getty Images)

It also would bring back tons of memories of his life and all the time he’s logged in and around the “World Center Of Racing.”

“This is where I grew up,” Gibson said. “I was born in Halifax Hospital across the street. My mom retired from here. My dad raced here all his life. To come here and do this is amazing.

“I had two other brothers that raced. Dad had to work night and day and everything he had to make sure we could race and have fun. So my mom and dad are the ones I thought about the very first thing (after Sunday’s win).”

The 52-year-old Gibson has seen and done a lot in his NASCAR life. But never what happened Sunday.

“I’ve been on the road for 33 years in this business in NASCAR, and I’ve put my life and soul into it,” Gibson said. “I’ve won the Daytona 500 before and it’s awesome, but to win it as a crew chief, I can’t describe how it feels, to take your team, put everything together and to make it happen. … It’s just phenomenal as a crew chief. It just means so much to me.

“Growing up, where I’m at today, my wife Beth, she’s been my biggest supporter for the last 26 years, sticking with me when things are bad.  I’m laid up in the hospital (recently with kidney stones), whatever.

“All those emotions just clamp on you at one time. It takes a few minutes for it to sink in. It’s pretty incredible.”

Indeed, not only was Busch’s and Gibson’s achievement incredible, it was one of the best feel-good stories that Daytona has seen in many a 500.

While winning Sunday was one of the greatest accomplishments of Gibson’s life, two other stories came to light after the victory celebration that further illustrates the kind of guy Gibson is and why he’s so beloved in the sport.

First, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the soon-to-implode Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008, Gibson promised Junior that he would do everything he could to keep “his guys” together, that he’d find them jobs somewhere else.”

Indeed, Gibson did, convincing Gene Haas and Tony Stewart, who recently had joined as partners in the then-fledgling Stewart-Haas Racing, to hire most of the former DEI expats – a group that has now been together for more than 13 years.

“I was determined to keep these guys together,” Gibson told NBC’s Marty Snider after Sunday’s race. “That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I’ve done.

“I’m more proud of that, to keep these guys’ jobs when things were really, really bad in the industry. To be able to stay together and come back to win the Daytona 500, I can’t say enough about them.”

Added Stewart, “They all came from DEI and that shows the kind of leadership Tony Gibson has. They’d go to the end of the earth for him.”

Gibson has worked with a number of NASCAR greats, dating back to one of his first jobs as car chief for Alan Kulwicki when he won the 1992 Winston Cup championship.

Along the way, there were many others, some of the biggest names of the sport, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Mark Martin, Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick.

But it was Busch that gave Gibson the one thing he never had earned in his life: a win in NASCAR’s biggest race in Gibson’s hometown.

Which leads to the second story about the kind of guy Gibson is.

Some other crew chiefs may have been hesitant to work with Busch, given some of the controversy that has occurred in his career – most of it off-track and in his personal life.

But not Gibson. He didn’t judge Busch by what happened in the past. All he was concerned about was Busch’s immense talent and what he would do in the future – and with Gibson atop his pit box.

Even when things got tough, Tony Gibson never gave up in his faith in Kurt Busch. (Getty Images)

“I love him to death,” Gibson said of Busch. “When I took that job on a couple years ago, we sat down and had a come-to-Jesus talk right off the bat. And since Day One we’ve been money.

“We respect one another, I respect what he’s accomplished and he respects what I’ve accomplished. And we mesh good together. I wouldn’t have nobody else driving my race cars than Kurt Busch. There’s nobody better. … He’s going to drive the wheels off it no matter what. You never have to second-guess is he giving you 110 percent?”

After 17 years, Busch finally earned NASCAR’s most prestigious honor to go along with the championship he earned in 2004. He came back to Daytona Beach year after year, with several different crew chiefs, including finishing runner-up three times.

But no one could get Busch the one trophy he and Gibson both craved the most – until Sunday.

Damage from an earlier accident in Sunday’s race and fears that he was about a half-lap short on fuel caused Busch great concern. But with “Old Man” atop the pit box, Busch’s concerns were allayed.

“When you have a crew chief that grows up in the shadows of the grandstands here in Daytona, you know you have the best guy because his heart is in it,” Busch said. “That’s what Daytona is about. You have to give it your heart.”

Sunday, Busch and Gibson both put their hearts into the win. And even though Stewart briefly wondered if something may have happened to Gibson’s heart on the pit box, he wasn’t exactly far off in a way.

After giving more than three decades years to the sport he loves, Gibson’s heart was in the best place it ever could be.

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Long: Tony Stewart finally gets chance to go to victory lane after a Daytona 500 win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart was among the last to arrive to Daytona International Speedway’s victory lane Sunday night.

The future NASCAR Hall of Famer walked in to little fanfare, as cameras of all shapes and sizes focused on Kurt Busch, who drove through a maze of wrecked vehicles and then by fuel-starved cars in the final laps to win Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Stewart, now just a NASCAR owner after retiring from the series last season, arrived to the packed victory lane moments before Busch emerged from his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

Stewart was finally in victory lane for a Daytona 500.

No other track has teased, tormented and tortured Stewart like Daytona. Sure, he has 19 total wins here, but it only makes what transpired in 17 Daytona 500s so vexing.

“We probably could have, should have won four or five of them and they got away,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s longtime crew chief who later became the competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Few hurt as much as the 2007 race when Stewart had one of the dominant cars before losing control and crashing into Busch.

Their paths intertwined in the 2008 Daytona 500 when Busch pushed Ryan Newman by Stewart on the final lap to help Newman win. Stewart finished third.

Stewart said he couldn’t look at Zipadelli for the week after that race, feeling he cost the team the win by not moving up to block Newman’s run.

There were other disappointments.

A favorite in 2002 after his Clash win, Stewart ran only two laps before his engine blew. He finished last. So frustrated, Stewart drove back to North Carolina instead of flying home.

Such disappointments became a pattern. The three-time series champion would excel in the events leading up to the 500 but be denied a victory in the sport’s biggest race.

His chances of winning faded in his final years driving in the series. His final three Daytona 500 appearances ended in finishes of 41st, 35th and 42nd before he missed last year’s race because of a back injury suffered a few weeks before the race.

No year could compare to 2001. Stewart tumbled down the backstretch and was taken to Halifax Health Medical Center. As Stewart was being treated, Dale Earnhardt was transported there after suffering fatal injuries in his last-lap crash.

Stewart went on to become one of the dominant voices in the garage in the following years. Five years after Earnhardt’s death, Stewart complained about the style of racing and said that if it continued “we’re going to kill somebody.’’

Stewart hated how blocking became prevalent — and necessary — to win restrictor-plate races. Even though he missed last year’s 500 because of his back injury, he made it clear he wouldn’t come back to run this event one more time because he never had won it.

It appeared as if his streak would continue Sunday even as an owner. Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer were eliminated by accidents. Kevin Harvick’s damaged car finished 22nd.

When Busch was the only SHR car left on the lead lap, Stewart moved to Busch’s pit box.

Although Busch ran near the front it seemed only a matter of time before something would happen to him. After all, Busch was winless in 63 career restrictor-plate points races before Sunday.

Even when Busch crossed the finish line ahead of Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger, Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, didn’t react. It took him a few moments to register what had happened. Stewart helped.

“You just won the Daytona 500!’’ Stewart told Gibson.

Stewart then turned to Zipadelli.

“Hey buddy, we finally got one of these.’’

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NASCAR Cup Drivers Council adds four new members

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 21:  Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 3M Chevrolet, and Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, walk on the grid during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The NASCAR Cup Drivers Council will have a different look this year with four new drivers on the group, which regularly meets with NASCAR officials to discuss on-track and off-track matters.

Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola are the new members. They join returning members Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.

The new drivers replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Kyle Larson.

Drivers earn a spot on the 10-member council based on their performance the previous year or by being elected by fellow competitors.

The group was to have met Sunday morning at Daytona International Speedway before the Clash was rescheduled from Saturday night.

Johnson told NBC Sports that the group added Blaney and Dillon as a way to get more young drivers involved. Elliott earned his spot as the reigning rookie of the year.

“It’s pretty neat to be involved,’’ Blaney told NBC Sports. “It’s nice that they wanted us to be a part of it. I’m excited to hear all the ideas that them and NASCAR have.’’

Almirola also said he’s honored to be a part of the group.

“Obviously, all the drivers have a voice, but the guys that go in and sit in the room are sort of the messengers and relay all the drivers’ feedback,’’ Almriola told NBC Sports. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to see how that whole process works.

“To have the opportunity to not only be a driver in this sport and have a voice and be on the Drivers Council and use that platform to hopefully make a difference … is going to be really cool.’’

The Drivers Council has played a role in a variety of subjects from security on pit road to the format for last year’s All-Star event to the push for a traveling safety team. Last year, the Council offered to pay Tony Stewart’s $35,000 fine after NASCAR punished Stewart for critical comments about lug nuts.

Also, Hamlin and Keselowski represented the Council in NASCAR meetings that shape the sport’s format enhancements for this season.

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Nighttime is the right time at Daytona: Five memorable Clash races under the lights

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Brown Toyota, crashes during the NASCAR Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been rebranded from the Shootout to the Unlimited to the Clash, and it’s undergone myriad format changes.

One thing has remained unchanged over the past 14 years – the season-opening exhibition at Daytona International Speedway has been scheduled for Saturday night.

The run happens to coincide with the first February trip to Daytona for this writer.

So to mark covering my 15th consecutive Speedweeks, here are my rankings of the five best editions of the Clash since the race moved under the lights in 2003:

5. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 7, 2004: Dale Jarrett led only the final lap, and his Robert Yates Racing Ford won mostly because he had been a longtime friend and mentor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. … and often gave him a lift in his helicopter.

No, seriously. Jarrett is a three-time Daytona 500 winner who is among the most accomplished and adept restrictor-plate racers in NASCAR history.

But he doesn’t score this victory without help from Earnhardt, whose No. 8 Chevrolet delivered a series of violent shots to Jarrett’s No. 88 to push him past Kevin Harvick.

“I’ve got to thank my buddy Dale Jr.,” Jarrett said after his fourth and final win in this race. “He probably had the fastest car, but he was banging my back bumper. That’s what I needed – that one push to get by (Harvick). I couldn’t have done it without Dale Jr. beating the back bumper off this thing.”

Earnhardt naturally had been happy to oblige – provided he could keep bumming rides in return for the favor.

“(Jarrett) has been a good friend to me on and off the racetrack, so I figured I’d push him to lead,” Earnhardt said. “I’m one of the few drivers in the top 15 that hasn’t bought an airplane or a helicopter, nor will I as long as I’ve got friends like Dale Jarrett hauling me to Martinsville and back.”

4. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 9, 2008: New team, new sponsor, new era.

Same result.

In his highly anticipated debut with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left little doubt about why he had left Dale Earnhardt Inc., winning this race for the second time with a pass of Tony Stewart on the penultimate lap.

What made the victory more special for Earnhardt was the help he received from teammates, particularly Jimmie Johnson. The reigning series champion (whose drafting skills Earnhardt once infamously disparaged for triggering a massive crash at Talladega) delivered several critical pushes to Earnhardt, who led 47 laps.

“I got great help from my teammates,” Earnhardt said. “I hope the fans enjoyed that. New team, victory lane. Man, it don’t get no better. I’m so happy.”

He also thanked Stewart, who had spent the past two days in a high-profile feud with Kurt Busch that included two meetings with NASCAR officials.

“It took us off the front page,” Earnhardt said. “I felt like a load lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking to the NASCAR hauler.”

Stewart, another good friend, actually didn’t seem to mind being runner-up. “This kid, obviously a lot is riding on his shoulders this year with the switch for him,” he said of Earnhardt. “I’m happy for him, and he deserved it. He drove his butt off. I can’t be disappointed with second.”

3. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 8, 2003: My first time around for this race also was the first victory in the event for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he made it memorable.

NASCAR’s most popular driver started last, finished first and generally seemed to toy with the field during his first victory in the Shootout. It took him only 15 laps to reach the front of the 19-car field, and he spent the remaining 55 laps yo-yoing around with a variety of impressive moves that regained him the lead three more times – the last with a power pass of Jeff Gordon with four laps left.

It felt like watching a stock-car rope-a-dope, but Earnhardt denied there was any Ali in his heavyweight game at Daytona.

“We never really do play around with them,” he said. “I always want to be up front and be the guy leading. I don’t want to have to make that valiant pass on the last lap.”

Still, he has made a habit of doing it often in plate races. This win felt very similar to his July 2001 win at Daytona – when he powered to first in the closing laps without any help in the first race at the track since his father had been killed in a last-lap crash five months earlier.

That never seems to have diminished Earnhardt’s affection for the World Center of Racing (where his father notched a record 34 victories).

“This is like coming home to your mom from college,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “It’s great to be back here.”

2. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 12, 2006: This race was postponed by rain to late Sunday afternoon, but the lights were on by the checkered flag – which was appropriate because it was clear Denny Hamlin’s name belonged in them.

A rookie racing in the finicky Daytona draft for the first time in NASCAR’s premier series, Hamlin acquitted himself better than anyone reasonably could have expected.

Starting 15th, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver patiently bided his time and then seized the opportunity when it arrived. He didn’t lead until 20 laps to go, but then he led all but five of the remaining laps and fended off challenges from Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart.

“He didn’t make a single rookie mistake,” Stewart said of his teammate.

Hamlin finished 0.154 seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who knew the winner from playing video games.

“With about 10 to go, I started thinking, ‘What if I actually win this thing?’” Hamlin said. “Everything happened so fast, it hasn’t caught up with me yet. I can’t believe it. I probably won’t believe it until I log (online) and see my face.”

The most amazing part of Hamlin’s accomplishment was what happened afterward. He wouldn’t win another restrictor-plate race for eight years (returning to Daytona victory lane in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited).

1. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 18, 2012: Emphatically erasing the unwanted memory of tandem drafting, pack racing returned to Daytona and was punctuated by one of the greatest saves in the half-century history of the 2.5-mile oval.

Kyle Busch nipped Stewart with a nifty move off the final corner to win by 0.013 seconds, but the finish wasn’t what everyone was talking about afterward.

Halfway through the race, his No. 18 Toyota slid down the banking in Turn 2, hit Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet and then turned left twice onto the apron without losing control.

“The first time might have been luck,” Busch said. “I’m going to say the second time was all skill. I was steering, stabbing, braking, gassing, everything in between, trying to keep the thing straight, get it back under control.”

Oh, he also did get spun during the scariest of three multicar wrecks (Jeff Gordon walked away after his No. 24 landed on its roof), but Busch still managed to charge from eighth to first in an overtime finish.

“I don’t know how many times I spun out and didn’t spin out,” Kyle Busch said. “Amazing race.  It was fun to drive when I wasn’t getting turned around.

Again, Stewart was the conciliatory runner-up.

“(Busch) had to catch it three times before he saved it,” said Stewart, who caught a trail of sparks from trailing behind the evasive maneuvers. “There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have caught that. I’m like, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.’ ”

(P.S. If you like rankings and a dash of punk rock irreverence, I also spent the past 10 days counting down The Clash’s 10 greatest songs in honor of The Clash’s return. Click here for No. 1 and links to the other nine songs.)