DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Outlaw, Smoke and Gronk turned the Daytona 500 into party central.
The good times were just getting started in victory lane Sunday night. Flanked by sexy models, the triumphant trio chugged drinks and gave NASCAR the buzz it craved in the season opener.
Might as well go wild for their first celebration on NASCAR’s grandest stage.
Kurt 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 opener for his off-track behavior, and for Monster, which has promised to pump new life into NASCAR’s sagging sport.
Consider the inaugural race a monster success.
“There’s just so many new things within this sport,” Busch said. “You just keep rolling with it and you smile.”
Known as The Outlaw, Busch has had plenty of reasons to smile since the offseason. He got married, and in a sign of the party to come, had Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler play at the reception.
Add NFL star Rob Gronkowski to Busch’s bandwagon, too.
Gronkowski celebrated with Busch and the famed Monster girls in victory lane. He raved about the win and really seemed to enjoy his first Daytona 500, the first for NASCAR’s new three-segment format and one filled with wrecks.
“We picked Kurt to win and he won ’cause he’s a Monster guy,” Gronk told The Associated Press. “Kurt did an awesome job. Monster killed that race!”
Gronk and Busch likely celebrated late into the night, well after the banged-up No. 41 Ford heads to the museum for its yearlong display at Daytona International Speedway.
Busch also helped team owner Tony Stewart fill one of the biggest voids in his illustrious career. It was the first Daytona 500 victory for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is co-owned by the retired driver nicknamed Smoke. The three-time champion called it quits at the end of last season and watched his four cars race from the pits.
Stewart’s NASCAR career ended without a win in 17 tries in the Daytona 500. Turns out he just needed to trade the fire suit for street clothes to bring home the checkered flag.
“If I had known all I had to do was retire, I would have retired 17 years ago if I knew it was what it took to win the race,” Stewart said.
It was just an added bonus to win in SHR’s first race with Ford.
It wasn’t NASCAR’s finest moment, though, as multiple accidents stripped the field of some top stars.
Ryan Blaney finished second, followed by AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola.
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 and neither was a contender for the win. NASCAR also debuted a rule that gave teams just five minutes to repair any damage on their cars or they were forced to retire, sending many drivers home early.
They were long gone when the biggest bash started.
Here are some other items of note from the Daytona 500:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. slammed into the wall and walked away unscathed, an early exit from the Daytona 500 that could be viewed as a positive step in his recovery process.
NASCAR’s most popular driver missed 18 races, half the season, in 2016 because of lingering concussion symptoms that included nausea as well as vision and balance issues. He got back in the car in early December and gained medical clearance to return this season.
He was looking to make a triumphant return at Daytona, the track where his famous father died, but ended up driving to the garage and parking it for the day shortly after the midway point of the 200-lap event. He finished 37th, but made progress.
“I feel good,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t have any symptoms or anything I’ve experienced in the past. It wasn’t that hard of a hit, but it still doesn’t mean you can’t get injured.”
FORD’S BIG WIN:
It was a definite coup for Ford when it lured Stewart-Haas Racing away from Chevrolet starting this season. The hope was that the four-car organization would bolster Ford’s numbers and lead the manufacturer to victories and championships.
One race down, and this partnership seems to be a perfect pairing.
Busch gave Ford its first win in the Daytona 500 since Joey Logano won it two years ago.
“SHR in their first outing with Ford, to get this win, we could not be any happier as an organization right now,” said Dave Pericak, global director of Ford Performance.
Chase Elliott came close to victory several times last season, each defeat hitting him harder than the last.
So it was no surprise to see Elliott devastated after he ran out of gas while leading the Daytona 500. He left the track as a passenger in a car driven by his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, after slipping to a 14th-place finish. Elliott was seeking to become the first driver to win the pole, a qualifying race and the 500 since his father accomplished the feat in 1985.
“I can understand his disappointment,” friend and second-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “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.”
Michael Waltrip ended his racing career exactly how he hoped.
He knew a victory was unlikely, so he set a more realistic goal for his final NASCAR start: to finish in the top 10 in his 30th and last Daytona 500.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner took the checkered flag in eighth, providing him the ideal conclusion to a career that began in 1985, spanned more than three decades and included 784 Cup Series starts and four victories.
“It’s going to be a great memory,” said Waltrip, who signed a one-race deal with Premium Motorsports to say goodbye at the famed speedway that has provided him triumph and tragedy. “I’m ready for it to be my last one, so it’s going to be a good one to remember it by.”
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