Kyle Busch earns best finish in Daytona 500 a year after missing race

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A year ago, Kyle Busch was forced to watch the Daytona 500 from a hospital bed near Daytona International Speedway, one day after injuring both legs in a crash in the Xfinity Series season opener.

Sunday, Busch made his 11th start in the Sprint Cup Series’ season-opening event, and wound up with a third-place finish, the closest he’s ever been to winning the Great American Race.

“It’s definitely a lot better being in the race where I’m supposed to be rather than on the sidelines watching across the street,” Busch said. “Three hundred and sixty-five days later, this could have gone two spots better and it would have been crazy to think of where we were. But we finished third. It’s my best finish in the Daytona 500 thus far. We’ll take that.”

The defending Sprint Cup champion’s best previous finish in the 500 was fourth in 2008.

Busch addressed the game plan that had all five Joe Gibbs Racing associated cars, including Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., in the top five in the closing laps.

“I would just say it was more willingness of working together than it was dominance of our race cars,” Busch said. “I think us working together was the biggest motivating factor of us being up front most of the day.”

Joe Gibbs Racing’s cars led 154 of the 200 laps with winner Denny Hamlin leading 95. Busch led 19 laps three days after winning the second Can-Am Duel qualifying race.

Busch was the third car in line as the field filed into Turns 3 and 4 for the last time. Matt Kenseth led, followed by Truex, Busch and the beat-up car of Carl Edwards. Hamlin led the outside line with Kevin Harvick on his bumper.

That the JGR army was still intact at such a late point surprised Busch.

“I figured it was five to go that it was every man for himself,” Busch said. “So I still stuck in line there and was trying to continue to stay on the bottom. I didn’t know if the outside was ever going to get going. They haven’t in a long time throughout the day. There were some things that were kind of transpiring on the bottom.”

The outside finally got going in the middle of the Turn 4. As Hamlin neared Kenseth darted out to block the No.11. It didn’t work out. Hamlin moved to the left to split Kenseth and Truex, then Kenseth nearly lost control in his effort to keep his teammate behind him.

“I wasn’t sure we were all going to make it through there with as dicey as it got,” Busch said.

But Busch and the rest of the field survived unscathed to jockey for position over the final 500 yards of the race, giving Busch little time to make a move.

“Once (Hamlin) did it, I swore I thought about doing it,” Busch said. “Once I thought about doing it and didn’t do it, it was too late. That was it. You can’t think that long and not make the move at the same time.”

He was left to watch Hamlin, who was also making his 11th start in the Daytona 500 and was also just months removed from offseason surgery, claim his first Daytona 500 win.

“So I missed my opportunity,” Busch said.