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Kyle Busch hopes to erase Daytona 500 'bad luck' by filling trophy case vacancy

In a love-hate relationship with Daytona, Kyle Busch hopes to wash away years of heartache with an elusive Daytona 500 Harley J. Earl trophy.

The trophy collection at Kyle Busch Motorsports is as varied as it is impressive. Winning nearly 200 NASCAR national series events, plus fielding a successful NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series team, tends to make a pack rat out of even the most clutter-averse people.

Winning has made Kyle Busch a gatherer — a hoarder even. But there’s organization to the whole caboodle. The shelves at the 77,000-square-foot team headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., are stacked with hardware, with most trophies grouped by track — providing visitors a virtual tour of the stock-car racing circuit with every venue represented. When you request a video shoot with the trophy case as a backdrop, Busch’s handlers can reply, “Which one?”

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Down the hallway are the mini Miles the Monster keepsakes from Dover, the triangle-mounted eagles from Pocono, the cowboy hats from Texas. Bristol Motor Speedway, where Busch can claim 21 victories in all three series, has its own special case and then some, decorated with gleaming, silver loving cups and ceremonial brooms from his pair of tripleheader sweeps there. So many wins are chronicled here, the trophies spill over into the gift shop.

In the main case, some recent reorganizing is evident. Square in the middle of a curated selection of Monster Energy Series memorabilia is a sizable gap, signifying what seems to be the only missing piece from the 33-year-old driver’s portfolio.

It’s a reserved parking spot for Harley J.

Kyle Busch

“What’s missing?” Busch says in the splashy promo reel that dropped last weekend, announcing his arrival at Daytona Speedweeks and his firm goals for his first win — and first Harley J. Earl trophy — in the Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). Busch is an agonizing 0-for-unlucky-13 in the Great American Race, a goal that started with childhood dreams and that has been blocked by a variety of hurdles.

“Overall, when I made my first start in the Daytona 500 in ’05, I was like, ‘Man, how cool would it be for a rookie to come out here — like, a true rookie — to be able to win this thing?’, ” Busch says. “I dreamed of winning that race, thinking I could win that race since I’ve been in it. It’s just never happened.”

If it does happen Sunday, that last trophy — the most prestigious in NASCAR — would pull the whole room together.

Daytona remembrances

Busch estimates it was late in his elementary school years when he first saw Daytona International Speedway. His mother took him and brother Kurt for the Daytona USA experience, which provided a trip through the infield and a tour of the rest of the facilities.

“You went all the way down to the grandstands for the road course in Turn 1,” Busch says, “and then you looked all the way back to Turns 3 and 4 and it was like, ‘Holy (expletive), this place in humongous.’ ”

His more frequent return trips to the 2.5-mile speed center have merited less of the wide-eyed fascination associated with youth, but with no less focus. Busch’s passion for the Daytona high banks grew as he watched Hendrick Motorsports — a team he would later drive for — go 1-2-3 in the 500 in 1997. The following year, he shared in the collective joy of watching Dale Earnhardt’s long-anticipated breakthrough in Daytona’s main event after 19 years of fruitless attempts.

Busch’s history with the 500 has its own share of close calls and heartbreak. In 2008, he led the most laps and was locked in a draft with then-teammate Tony Stewart when Ryan Newman whizzed by on the final lap, buoyed by a push from Kurt Busch, Newman’s Team Penske teammate.

Busch returned to lead the most laps the following year, but wound up 41st after a late-race stack-up. He wouldn’t come that close again for another seven years, but would encounter the largest trauma of his racing career in between, fatefully at Daytona.

Busch crashed during an Xfinity Series race on Feb. 21, 2015, his Toyota nosing into a frontstretch barrier and causing multiple, severe leg injuries. He missed the first 11 races of the season, the first of which was the next day’s Daytona 500, held just blocks away from the hospital where he recovered from surgery to repair a compound fracture. Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton drove Busch’s No. 18 to 18th place in the only Monster Energy Series start of his career.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21: The car of Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster energy Toyota, is seen against a wall after crashing during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Busch was transported to a local hospital with a lower body injury and will not race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 tomorrow. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Nine months later, Busch would become a premier series champion for the first time, farther south in Florida at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But the anguish of being outside the car for NASCAR’s most esteemed race still lingered.

“(Wife) Samantha and I, I cried at the start of the race because I wasn’t in it,” Busch says. “It was not a great experience or one that you’d wish on anybody. In the end, the way ’15 ended up, I’m kind of glad I went through it, in all retrospect. I think that life happens in funny ways for funny reasons. I don’t know.”

He returned to Daytona the following year as a champion, but again left with regrets, helplessly watching teammate Denny Hamlin inch by Martin Truex Jr. in front of him as he claimed third. Hamlin’s clinching maneuver came nearly a full lap from the checkers as he exited a Joe Gibbs Racing train formation to break Kevin Harvick’s momentum on the high side.

“And I thought,” Busch says, snapping his fingers to mimic the split-second nature of his decision process, “just the corner before he went by me, I needed to get out of line and do that move and didn’t. It ended up being the move that won the race. I kick myself every time that I didn’t do that.”

An elusive prize

Prominent drivers with NASCAR Hall of Fame jackets never wore the Daytona 500 crown — Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace among them. Still others waited the bulk of their careers to finally taste a 500 victory.

Busch isn’t quite to Dale Earnhardt’s “20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration” refrain just yet, but his pathway has been similarly tortuous. And when asked to pinpoint the reason, Busch says no single explanation jumps out.

“I’d say it’s multiple things, but in all reality, I’d say it’s bad luck,” Busch says. “Two years in a row, these last two years we’ve had flat tires that have just taken us out of the running. Nothing that we’ve done, I don’t think, so that’s been a bit demoralizing overall. But at some of the other events, we’ve run OK and been in contention.”

Hamlin, his teammate, had his own waiting time outside of Daytona’s Victory Lane, but finally claimed his lone 500 win with a numerologist’s dream sequence in 2016. He drove car No. 11 from the 11th starting position in his 11th Daytona 500 try.

Like Busch, Hamlin cites the factors of luck against fate. But he also suggests that Busch’s repeat performances in contention at the historic track should eventually equal kismet.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, races Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, ahead of the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images

“You’d like to think that it’s a matter of time,” Hamlin says. “Look how long it took Dale Earnhardt to do it, and he dominated. He was way better than either one of us at that race track — by a mile. It’s just a hard race to win because of so many things that can go wrong. You have to have everything happen perfectly, you have to miss the wrecks, you need a little bit of luck in there, but you just try to put yourself in those ideal situation. And sometimes Kyle was just not in the right, ideal situation, but a lot of the times, it was just bad luck.

“Looking back, I can think of a couple years, maybe, where he got in a crash that wasn’t his doing or maybe had a tire go in one of the years. But certainly, I think at his age, it’s probably a matter of time. He’s got a long time ahead of him. I think that he’s won those Shootouts before and all those races. He’s kind of had the same resume that I had before I’d won the Daytona 500. So certainly, he’s got everything in his favor to go out there and get it done, but sometimes he just hasn’t had that little bit of luck factor that you need to finish the deal off.”

That finicky nature of competing at the World Center of Racing has led to some love-hate sentiment for Busch, who enters Sunday’s 500 as a contender in a field flush with would-be winners. He’s prevailed in almost everything else here, winning qualifying races and the preliminary Clash, scoring a victory in the July 400-miler and claiming Daytona triumphs in the other two national series.

If a Daytona 500 win truly is a matter of time, Busch should have a special reverence for the event’s history and its ability to wash away years of heartache.

He’ll also have no guesswork when figuring out the proper place for the trophy.

“Really, I’ve loved the place,” Busch says. “For what that race track means in the history of our sport and what Daytona Beach means for the history of our sport, back from 1949, it’s what our sport was built on.”

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