By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The first race of the NASCAR season was a demolition derby that turned Daytona International Speedway into a giant junkyard.
The Busch Clash? More like the Busch Crash.
Erik Jones won Sunday’s race that left a multi-million dollar trail of destruction and masked the fact the Clash was a made-for-TV exhibition race. Only 18 cars were entered and only six were on track when the checkered flag flew at the end of a third overtime.
Jones crossed the finish line in a Toyota with a crumpled hood after a huge push from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.
“I’ve got to give a huge thanks to Denny there … he stuck with us there that whole last lap,” Jones said. “It wasn’t the fastest car I don’t think left in the race, but we brought it home. I owe him one for that one, for sure.”
Hamlin was a lap down after a blown tire on the previous overtime attempt caused him to crash half the cars remaining on track, but he had enough speed to push Jones along the outside and give Gibbs yet another win. The Gibbs organization won 19 races last year, went 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 and won the Cup Series title.
Joe Gibbs is now the all-time winningest owner in Busch Clash history with nine victories.
Brad Keselowski was among those incensed by the aggressive late blocking. The race was fairly anti-climactic until two wrecks in the final nine laps sent it into overtime, and as Keselowski railed against the racing that ended his day, Hamlin got a flat tire as the leader on a restart and collected most of the cars on track.
“Dumb, dumb racing,” said Keselowski, who slapped the side of an ambulance with both hands in frustration. “We shouldn’t be wrecking all these cars. You’d think these guys would be smarter than that. It’s the same thing over and over, somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field.
“I don’t know. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt, and then we’ll stop driving like (expletive).”
Kyle Busch, collected in the accident that ended Keselowski’s day when teammate Joey Logano tried to block Busch, said the crashes are a product of superspeedway racing.
“Either you can race or you can wreck,” Busch said. “The reason why we ride in single file (early in the race) is because we don’t know how to race. Just a product of a few bad decisions there and we’re all crashed.”
The cars raced in Sunday’s exhibition event are backups for the Feb. 16 season-opening Daytona 500.
The 75-lap event ended up going 88 laps because of the late crashes, making it the longest in history.
Austin Dillon was second in the new Chevrolet Camaro and followed by Clint Bowyer in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. Kyle Larson was fourth for Chip Ganassi Racing and Ryan Newman, in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford, was fifth and the last car on the lead lap.
Hamlin in sixth had the only other car running at the end and ended up being a solid teammate.
“It’s so awesome,” Hamlin said. “I knew he needed to strap in because, that last lap, I was going to push him. I didn’t care if I was going to push him into a wreck. I was just going to push him. It was fun.”
Jones led just one lap, the last one.
“I didn’t know it was that bad to be honest with you until now,” Jones said as he looked at his crumpled car. ‘But it sure feels good to come out of here with a win, especially in a race with perseverance like that. You don’t want to give up, and when it pays off in the end, it makes it extra special.”