DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Teammates Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch had better-than-decent shots at winning the Daytona 500.
Both were wrecked while at or near the front late in “The Great American Race.”
They were equally distraught.
“My heart is broken,” Almirola said following an 11th-place finish. “So devastated. I thought I was going to win the Daytona 500. Just disappointed.”
Almirola was leading on the final lap when Austin Dillon got a big run on the outside. Almirola moved to block him, but Dillon ran into his right-rear quarter panel and turned him into the wall. Dillon slid by and drove onto to victory.
“He’s not driving too aggressively,” Almirola said. “He’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was. I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t going to just let him have it. … This one is going to hurt for a while.”
At least he will get some sympathy back at the race shop.
Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch, led two laps (195-96) and was running second and trying to pass leader Denny Hamlin when Ryan Blaney got him sideways and triggered “The Big One” with two laps to go in regulation.
“I was feeling the magic,” said Busch, the defending race winner who was trying to become the fourth to go back-to-back in the Daytona 500. “I thought we could do it again. We found the right drafting lanes and I was making good moves. I just got caught in a Bermuda Triangle it seemed like when Hamlin blocked us.
“Maybe I should have just flung (Hamlin), but you have to treat guys with respect and you’ve also got to throw your elbows out and you have to hold the hits when you get hit. We were close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”
Busch finished 26th.
Here are some other story lines that got overshadowed by Dillon driving the famed No. 3 Chevrolet back to victory lane at Daytona on the anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death and 20 years after “The Intimidator” won his lone Daytona 500 :
The revamped lineup at Hendrick Motorsports endured as much trouble in the race as any team.
Seven-time Cup Series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson wrecked for the third time in a week when he was caught in a nine-car crash right before the end of the first stage. He was collected in the crash that began when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tried to block Ryan Blaney, and the cars behind them had to avoid Stenhouse’s moves.
“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Johnson said.
Johnson also wrecked in two previous races at Speedweeks.
The day just got worse for Hendrick Motorsports in the second stage when Chase Elliott was turned hard into the wall while running second.
William Byron and pole-sitter Alex Bowman also crashed later.
There were a number of unheralded drivers who posted surprising results in the Daytona 500.
Chris Buescher of JTG Daugherty Racing was fifth, Michael McDowell of Front Row Motorsports was ninth and Justin Marks of Rick Ware Racing finished 12th. McDowell and Marks are both one-car-team wonders that about made their season with their strong finishes.
Vietnam War veteran and 66-year-old driver Mark Thompson finished 22nd in just his second career Cup race. Thompson made his first Cup start in 1992 and the ARCA vet was set to retire following the race. Thompson drove the No. 66 car in honor of his age and had a better finish than former Daytona 500 winners Johnson, Busch and Kevin Harvick.
Blaney was the runner-up in the Daytona 500 a year ago and came back with a car capable of winning.
But after leading a race-high 118 laps, Blaney’s shot at the victory fell apart. He had the race in control until a caution set up a restart, and Blaney made the wrong moves in trying to wrap up the win.
He found himself in a back-and-forth race with Busch and Hamlin in which the three were swapping positions and trying to make it to the finish line. But with two laps to go in regulation, Blaney bumped Busch from behind to trigger a 12-car accident.
Blaney finished seventh, but left Daytona as the Cup points leader.
“This one definitely stings, but hopefully we can get another shot at it one day,” Blaney said.
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