The three men stood completely silent, backs turned to the confetti cannon erupting behind them. The purple flakes fell down at Daytona International Speedway, but for nearly five minutes, the trio were unmoved, their bright yellow fire suits drenched neither in celebratory champagne nor that elusive confetti.
The unfortunate life of a runner-up.
Really, all the men — three pit crew members for Kyle Busch, who finished second in Sunday’s Daytona 500 to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin — could do was idly stand by and watch their driver answer to reporters.
“You lost,” Busch said. “It’s a lost race.”
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For Busch, who has won nearly everything possible at the Cup Series level except for the Daytona 500, this race in particular will linger as one that got away.
“Yeah, this was probably the best shot to win,” he lamented.
In years past, and through no fault of his own, Busch has fallen prey to some of the ‘Big Ones’ that often doom drivers at Daytona. Just surviving to race’s end was something of an accomplishment in itself.
And that was especially true after three massive wrecks in the final 10 laps damaged nearly car on the track ... except for Busch’s, and Hamlin’s, naturally. Those collisions sent the race to overtime, where Hamlin and Busch were the two cars slated to lead the restart. Because he had been in the lead when the third of those three wrecks took place, Hamlin got to choose where he’d like to start.
So, what then?
“We made a deal with the 11 (Hamlin) to let them down (to the bottom of the track). In doing that, it was strength in numbers trying to keep us all together,” Busch said. “I probably knew better, but I took that chance to make sure at least one of us won.”
For all the drama in those last 10 laps, what happened next was calm in comparison: Hamlin took to the top line of the track, and then Busch let him come down in front of him. Then Hamlin cruised out to a substantial lead, and while Busch had a late push on the backstretch to make things close, Hamlin’s victory was already a foregone conclusion.
Busch got what he said he wanted — a JGR car ended up in Victory Lane — but that left him on the outside of Victory Lane looking in.
For the 15th time in this same race.
“It’s nice to see a teammate win,” Busch said, “but it’s very, very bittersweet. I guess we’ll come back and try again.”
At this point, that’s all Busch can do. But another reason this one especially will sting?
At Kyle Busch Motorsports, for all the trophies and championship cars and other reminders of Busch’s myriad successes, there’s one slot in his grand trophy case that stays empty. There’s a Cup Series title, the pinnacle of the sport, but still, one unfilled square.
Guess what for?
Back on the track, fans steadily started walking up to the trio of crew members off to the side. Pats on the back, messages of consolation — next time, next time.
Only, this was the time. And as other all-timers who never won a 500, like Tony Stewart and Mark Martin, can attest, sometimes there isn’t a next time.
“It’s frustrating for sure,” Busch said. “Just wasn’t meant to be today.”
And then he, and his pit crew, walked away — from reporters, but especially from the confetti.