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Daytona 500: Kurt Busch wins for first victory in NASCAR's season opener

Kurt Busch celebrates in Victory Lane after winning

Kurt Busch celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Photo Credit: TNS / Stephen M. Dowell

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In an effort to juice up the sport and improve sagging television ratings, NASCAR unveiled some souped-up rules Sunday for the Daytona 500. The changes, including the awarding of Cup series points for the winners of the first two 60-lap “stages” of the race, have been met with mixed reactions by fans.

Perhaps NASCAR just needed what it got on a gorgeous afternoon at sold-out Daytona International Speedway — an exciting race with plenty of wrecks (and everyone walking away with no serious injuries) and a thrilling last-lap takeover by first-time winner Kurt Busch.

Busch overtook Kyle Larson on the 200th and final lap. It was the only lap Busch led all day. It was the only one he needed.

“The more I run this race, the more I’ve learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip,” Busch said. “I mean, this car is completely bashed. There’s not a straight panel on it . . . My rearview mirror fell off with 30 (laps) to go. That’s an omen. That’s an omen because I’m not going to have to look at it anymore. I had to drive defensively and take advantage of other people’s mistakes.”

There was also a heaping helping of controversy involving the winner’s brother, Kyle, who won the first stage. But Kyle Busch later blew a tire on Lap 104, which caused the first wreck of the day and ended the run of fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others. Earnhardt was leading at the time.

Kyle Busch’s accident ended up with him in a real-time war of words with Goodyear, the maker of his tires, as his brother kept competing.

“Obviously, Goodyear tires aren’t very good at holding air,” Kyle Busch said. “It’s very frustrating when we have that down here every single year we’ve been here.”

Goodyear representatives hustled to quickly defend their product.

But the overall story for the Busch brothers had a happy ending. After seeing Kurt’s win, Kyle tweeted his congratulations:

“Congrats on the win @KurtBusch! #Daytona500”

Along with Earnhardt, some of NASCAR’s other big names were knocked out in three separate wrecks. Defending Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson was unable to continue, as were Danica Patrick, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski, among others. Fifteen of the 40 entrants did not finish because of accidents. Second-stage winner Kevin Harvick finished 22nd.

Larson, who was passed on the last lap by Kurt Busch, ended up running out of gas. Larson had just overtaken Chase Elliott, who also finished on empty. Those developments left Ryan Blaney as the second-place finisher with AJ Allmendinger third, Aric Almirola fourth and Paul Menard fifth.

Among the happy members of Kurt Busch’s team was co-owner Tony Stewart, a three-time Cup Series winner as a driver. “I ran this damn race 18 years and couldn’t win it,” Stewart said. “Finally won it as an owner. What an awesome job those last couple laps. It’s probably the most patient race I’ve ever watched Kurt Busch run.”

Busch has had to be patient. He finished second three times in the Daytona 500. With one lap to go, it looked as if he was going to finish second again.

Busch took the lead at the right time. But without his rearview mirror, he had to rely on his spotter to tell him how far back the next car was in the final stretch.

“The spotter said, ‘Four back. Five back,’ ’’ Busch said. “And I’m like, ‘I can’t even see out the back to enjoy it.’ ’’

Eventually, he was able to enjoy it.

“Unbelievable,” Busch said in victory lane.

New York Sports