DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Decked in Monster gear and chugging a tall boy of the energy drink as he was flanked by scantily clad models and one of pro sports' top partiers, Kurt Busch celebrated the biggest win of his racing career.
It was Monster Madness!
Busch used a last-lap pass to win the crash-filled Daytona 500 on Sunday in the opening race of Monster Energy's new role as title sponsor of NASCAR's top series. Busch, it just so happens, is also sponsored by Monster, and the company has strongly stood by him through his rocky career.
So this was a victory of redemption for Busch, who was suspended by NASCAR two days before the 2015 Daytona 500 for his off-track behavior, and for Monster, which has promised to pump new life into NASCAR's sagging sport.
"I've had a lot of people that have believed in me through the years, a lot of people that have supported me," Busch said.
Add NFL star Rob Gronkowski to Busch's bandwagon, too.
Gronkowski celebrated with Busch and the Monster girls in victory lane. He raved about the win and seemed to really enjoy his first Daytona 500, the first for NASCAR's new three-segment format and one filled with wrecks.
"Monster's the best!" Gronk shouted to The Associated Press. "We picked Kurt to win and he won 'cause he's a Monster guy. Kurt did an awesome job. Monster killed that race!"
Gronk and Busch likely will celebrate late into the night, well after the banged-up No. 41 Ford heads to the museum for its yearlong display at Daytona International Speedway.
"The more that becomes unpredictable about Daytona, the more it becomes predictable to predict unpredictability," Busch said. "This car's completely thrashed. There's not a straight panel on it. The strategy today, who knew what to pit when, what segments were what. Everybody's wrecking as soon as we're done with the second segment.
"The more that I've run this race, the more that I just throw caution to the wind, let it rip and just elbows out. That's what we did."
It wasn't NASCAR's finest moment, though, as multiple accidents pared down the field and had a mismatched group of drivers racing for the win at the end.
It appeared to be pole-sitter Chase Elliott's race to lose, then he ran out of gas. So did Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne. As they all slipped off the pace, Busch sailed through for his first career Daytona 500 victory in 16 tries.
It also was the first Daytona 500 win for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is co-owned by Tony Stewart. The three-time champion retired at the end of last season and watched his four cars race from the pits.
"I ran this damn race (17) years and couldn't win it, so finally won it as an owner," Stewart said. "It's probably the most patient race I've ever watched Kurt Busch run. He definitely deserved that one for sure."
It was a crushing defeat for Elliott, who is developing a reputation as a driver unable to immediately digest defeat. He left the track without comment in a car driven by his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
Ryan Blaney finished second in a Ford. AJ Allmendinger was third in a Chevrolet, and Aric Almirola was fourth for Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I can understand his disappointment, for sure," Blaney said of Elliott, his friend and rival. "You're leading the race. Looks like you're going to win the Daytona 500. You know how he is, he's very hard on himself. But it wasn't his fault. You can't help you run out of gas."
The win was a huge boost for Ford, which lured Stewart-Haas Racing away from Chevrolet this season and celebrated the coup with its second Daytona 500 victory in three years. Joey Logano won in a Ford in 2015.
"What a great win to start off a partnership," said Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer. "We were so fast. We knew we had a good chance and Kurt hung in there after getting caught up in that crash. He didn't give up."
The first points race of the Monster era was run under a new format that split the 500 miles into three stages. Kyle Busch won the first stage, Kevin Harvick won the second stage and neither was a contender for the win. NASCAR also this year passed a rule that gave teams just five minutes to repair any damage on their cars or they were forced to retire.
But the race was slowed by wreck after wreck after wreck, including a 17-car accident at the start of the final stage that ended the race for seven-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick. It was a particularly rough incident for Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team, which had all four of its cars collected in the accident.
"Just seems like that could have been avoided and was uncalled for," Johnson said about the aggressive racing behind him that triggered the accident.
Kurt Busch was able to continue, but most of the top contenders found themselves on the outside looking in.
"Some years I think we have it where we run here and nobody wrecks and it's great racing," said Brad Keselowski, "and then you have other years like this where everybody wrecks all the time."
Roughly two hours before the race, NASCAR chairman Brian France issued drivers a stern warning about blocking.
France rarely wades into competition matters, especially in public, but stepped to the microphone to admonish the drivers. The Truck Series and Xfinity Series races were sloppy wreck-fests, and France hardly wanted the same spectacle for his Super Bowl.
"This is our biggest event," France told the packed drivers meeting. "What I don't normally do, and I'm going to do this today, is bring up a competition issue. This is for the drivers. And what I want you to think about. We realize blocking is part of racing. We understand that. We accept that.
"Do not look for NASCAR ... when you block somebody out there. It causes almost all the big incidents. Do not look for NASCAR ... you better hope there's a Good Samaritan behind you who is going to accept that block, because they have that lane and the right to it. And I don't often make those statements."
Blocking or not, the race was a mess of tangled sheet metal and wrecked cars.
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