Kurt Busch’s day in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course had all of the calling cards of a classic exhilarating roller coaster ride, as it was an up and down, and up and down, and up kind of day.
The Las Vegas-native started the day from way back in 17th, before making his way up to fifth by the end of Stage 1. He continued to climb the hill up to second-place by the end of Stage 2, and on the opening lap of the final Stage, it looked like he had firm grasp of the control of the race as he had moved to the lead.
Then, in an instant, Busch found himself going off the edge of the coaster’s tallest mountain. All of the progress was gone.
Busch clipped a rumble strip, which sent him skidding into the grass, then spinning around and around. Before he was able to get his No. 1 machine back on track, Busch had fallen to 27th position and it appeared any hope of a good finish — much less a win — had evaporated.
“Man, I just crossed over that fine-line of grip and the car – it’s there, but I was just over-driving,” Busch said of his incident following the race. “The tires at this track, with the worn-out asphalt in that infield section, is really easy to step over the line. I actually took a deep breath and just said ‘stay cool, stay cool’, and then I pounded that curb and it shot me straight out.”
Luckily for the 42-year old, a roller coaster ride isn’t done after your descent from the tallest peak.
The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion continued to scratch and claw his way back up the leaderboard. A few laps after his off-road excursion, Busch found the rear bumper of Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang, and sent him for a ride while battling for the 23rd position.
While Keselowski was forced to endure his own version of Roller Coaster Tycoon: NASCAR Edition, Busch soldiered on and kept his head down.
It looked like a top-15 to top-20 was a realistic possibility for Busch. Then, on lap 56, NASCAR called a caution for weather, which changed everything.
It re-racked the field, and helped Busch close the gap he had to the leaders, but more importantly, this caution set the stage for an ensuing set of other cautions that helped Busch and crew chief Matt McCall get on a new strategy in an attempt to flip their good day gone bad, which had then turned okay, into a potentially great finish.
While a large portion of the field, including Chase Elliott, who led a race-high 44 laps, hit pit road for fresh tires, Busch was among a group of 11 drivers that opted to run the remainder of the race on older tires in hopes that the track position would equal a net gain in the finishing position column.
For Busch, who restarted third with 12 laps to go, the gamble paid off in the form of a fifth-place finish.
“Matt McCall, all my guys – they had an awesome day on pit road, strategy-wise and with their stops to get us that track position and to get us back up front,” Busch said after a hard-fought finish. “If I’m going to make a mistake, it’s on me to then dig us out of that hole and stay out there on old tires. Really good points day; top-five I think in all the stages. So, that’s a good checkmark to bounce back after the Daytona 500. Thanks to Monster Energy, Chevy, GearWrench – we’re rolling now.”
Busch isn’t kidding about the bounce back for his team after the Daytona 500, where he was crashed out before the finish. The fifth-place effort on Sunday, elevated Busch and the No. 1 team from 20th to eighth in the NASCAR Cup Series driver point standings.
Now, Busch will attempt to take this newfound momentum to Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. Busch has one win at Homestead, but it came way back in 2002. The 1.5-mile speedway hasn’t been too kind to Busch in recent seasons as he has one top-10 finish in his last five starts there, but if Sunday’s race at the Daytona Road Course is any indication, Busch will never give up.