DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This is Kyle Busch‘s year.
No, not his year to win a second championship or reach 50 career Cup Series wins or hit 200 NASCAR national series victories. Though he might do all of that and more. This isn’t even his year to win the Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). It could be. But that’s only a possibility.
The absolute certainty is that this is indeed Kyle Busch’s year … to be the guy who is constantly asked, “Hey man, when are you finally gonna win the Daytona 500?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that a few times this week,” the 33-year-old said with a smile during Wednesday’s Daytona 500 media day. He’d just strolled a red carpet of local and national TV crews, pausing at multiple stations in front of the Harley J. Earl Trophy to be asked why his name wasn’t yet on it. He’d then hit a series of radio and internet channels to be asked if he thought this would — finally?! — be the year.
“This will be my 14th Daytona 500,” Busch said. “And no, I haven’t won it yet. But I guess I’ve been doing something right, because everyone seems pretty surprised that I haven’t. That’s a compliment, right?”
It is, indeed.
This is a driver who has now won on every single racetrack that the Cup Series has run more than once during his career, a whopping 23 of them. He won eight races last year, matching his career best for a single season, and jumped six legends on the all-time wins list. If he has his average season in 2019, he will leapfrog two more and crack the all-time top 10.
He has won the Southern 500, Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR All-Star Race and a pair of Brickyard 400s, and he is already the all-time winner in both the Truck Series (tied) and Xfinity Series.
So … yeah … why hasn’t he won the Daytona 500? It’s a totally fair question because it is basically the only race he hasn’t won. “I once heard Richard Petty say that he remembered more of the races he didn’t win than the 200 that he did win,” Busch said Wednesday.
“I totally get that. I might look at a trophy and say, ‘How did we win that one?’ But I will look at a trophy of another guy and say, ‘That’s the race where we had that bad last set of tires and lost the lead, isn’t it?’ That’s just how we work.”
He also confessed that he has asked himself the same questions about his Daytona record. He recalls fast cars in 2007, ’08 and ’16. “But that’s really it,” he said. “This just hasn’t been the best race and place for me.” He’s right. Over those previous 13 Daytona 500 starts, he’s only cracked the top five three times, and he’s never finished higher than fourth. In 2015, a crash the day before the big race handed Busch the most brutal injury of his career, sidelining him for three months. “I know my record here in February, so it doesn’t hurt my feelings when you ask about not winning it,” he added. “You’ve asked it of bigger guys than me.”
Many of the sportswriters in the semicircle that had Busch surrounded Wednesday were indeed there to ask the same question of his predecessors. Just as he will be one day, Daytona 500 win or not, the others are all either already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame or knocking at the door.
Buddy Baker was the first to find himself peppered with “When, dude?” questions before the superspeedway master finally snapped a then-record 0-for-18 streak via what is still the fastest Daytona 500 ever run. “I’d had so much go so wrong so many times my goal was to get the finish as fast as I possibly could,” Baker half-joked in 2010. “I wanted to outrun trouble and outrun all those questions about me not winning that race!”
After Baker, the “What is taking you so long?!” mantel was passed to Darrell Waltrip, who won in 1989, the No. 17 car winning in his 17th try. Then came perhaps the greatest of Great American Race moments, when Dale Earnhardt finally won his 20th start.
“The key is be one of the guys on that list,” Busch reminded. “The guys who took a while to win it but ended up winning it. There are way more guys who are on the zero-for-whatever list. That’s the list you don’t want to be on.”
That roster is also packed with Hall of Famers. Terry Labonte was 0-for-32. Mark Martin failed to win in 29 tries. Rusty Wallace won 55 races, but was 0-for-24 at the beach. Of the 26 NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers who made their livings during the Daytona 500 era, 15 won NASCAR’s biggest race. That means 11 — 42 percent — will always be asking what-if. In upcoming years, that percentage will only increase with the expected arrivals of former teammates Tony Stewart (0-for-17) and Bobby Labonte (0-for-24).
“I think the point is that it’s hard to do, right?” Busch explained in the face of those surprising all-star stats. “There’s not a race that anyone wants to win more than this one. And it’s a restrictor-plate race that’s also the first race of the year. Most places we go, there are a dozen guys who have a real, legitimate chance to win that race. Here, 40 guys have a chance. Everyone. Those are long odds.”
Busch is in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing machine that Labonte used to drive. So, at 13 losses, he’s not even the most-starved Daytona 500 driver to be in his own car. Heck, he doesn’t even own the longest Daytona 500 drought at the family Thanksgiving dinner table. When big brother Kurt won the Great American Race in 2017, it came in his 17th try (driving for Stewart).
“As with a lot of stuff in my career, my goal is just to do it before he did,” little brother said with a wink. “I’ve got a few years still to make that happen. But I don’t want to take that long. I say we go on and take care of that Sunday. Then you can come back here next year and ask someone else when are they finally going to win it.”