|PHOTO: Luis Torres, @TheLTFiles|
Busch arrived in Daytona coming off his second series championship, his #18 Toyota decorated with decals of the final Monster Energy Cup before Monster pulled out as the Cup Series’ title sponsor at the end of the season. The car showed speed, ranking fourth of the eighteen entrants in final practice, then secured the ninth spot by random draw. His car for the Daytona 500 looked just as fast, taking sixth in single-car qualifying after running seventh and fourteenth in the first two practices.
With Daniel Suarez’ new ride at Gaunt Brothers Racing choosing not to run the event, and fellow polesitter Daniel Hemric out of his ride at Richard Childress Racing, Denny Hamlin drew the last starting spot in the shortest Clash field since 2017. On the break, Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Toyota stayed even with the #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet of Kurt Busch. Hamlin edged ahead down the backstretch, then the two found themselves on the inside of a three-wide battle with Jimmie Johnson. At the stripe, Johnson held the last spot in his #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet.
Much of the opening twenty-five-lap run to the scheduled caution flag saw the field within shouting distance of each other. Johnson dropped Kurt to last on Lap 2, then linked together in a single-file draft. Next to take the spot was Aric Almirola, who dropped out of line in his #10 Pure Farmland Ford, slotting into last on Lap 6. Almirola, Johnson, and Busch traded the spot until Lap 9, when Almirola held it to Lap 21. That time by, Almirola got a run on the high lane, dropping Kurt back to eighteenth.
Pit stops short of the caution jumbled up the positions, trading it between Almirola, Clint Bowyer in the #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford and Ryan Blaney in the #12 Menards / Peak Ford. Almirola re-took the spot for the restart as he incurred the first tail-end penalty for crewmembers coming over the wall too soon. The following challenger was Austin Dillon, whose #3 Symbicort / Rig Up Chevrolet pitted with his fellow Chevrolet teams and the #6 Koch Ford of Ryan Newman, docked for speeding on pit road. Dillon took the spot on Lap 30 and held it for three circuits until Johnson took the spot, followed by Almirola on Lap 41. Three laps later, Joey Logano’s #22 Shell / Pennzoil Ford dropped to the rear for the first time, then was unable to clear Almirola to take seventeenth.
The next challenger was Erik Jones, who on Lap 48 overshot his pit stall, forcing him to return to the track without a drafting partner. With the field now split into two different packs, Jones was soon passed by the leader, making Jones the first car to lose a lap. The second trailing pack caught and passed him on Lap 59, putting him even further behind, likely out of contention if the race’s green-flag complexion didn’t change. If no one else fell out of the race, it would have been Jones’ second-straight last-place finish in the Clash.
Busch, meanwhile, was locked in a tight battle for the lead when things suddenly came undone. On Lap 66, he moved to the inside of Logano with Hamlin to his inside. Logano and Busch collided and spun, bouncing Busch off Hamlin then back into traffic, blocking the path of Brad Keselowski’s #2 MoneyLion Ford. The ensuing pileup collected six cars, eliminating both Busch and Keselowski. Keselowski, who was running behind Busch, avoided the last-place finish by continuing across the start / finish line and stopping in Turn 1. Busch stopped at pit entrance and climbed out, handing him the finish.
The rest of the Bottom Five was decided on the ensuing restart, when another ten cars tangled just below the starter’s stand. Taking sixteenth was Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Sirius / XM Toyota, followed by Alex Bowman in the #88 Valvoline Chevrolet and William Byron in the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet. Jones also suffered damage in the accident – as well as the two that followed – but was ultimately pushed to the win by his lapped teammate Denny Hamlin. In the end, they were among the only six cars still running at the finish.
*This marked the first last-place finish for both Busch and the #18 in the Busch Clash.
*Busch’s 65 laps complete breaks the record for most laps complete of 55, set by Erik Jones last year.
*Next Sunday, Busch looks to become the third driver to finish last in the Clash, then win the Daytona 500 in the same year, joining Jeff Gordon (1999) and Kurt Busch (2017).
THE BOTTOM FIVE
18) #18-Kyle Busch / 65 laps / crash
17) #2-Brad Keselowski / 66 laps / crash / led 33 laps
16) #19-Martin Truex, Jr. / 72 laps / crash / led 7 laps
15) #88-Alex Bowman / 74 laps / crash / led 2 laps
14) #24-William Byron / 74 laps / crash / led 4 laps