Daytona 500 victory remains Kyle Busch’s holy grail

There’s no bigger single item on Kyle Busch’s to-do list than winning the Daytona 500.

That’s because Busch has accomplished just about everything else in big-time stock car racing.

In 2015, he won his first championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, despite missing the first 11 races because of broken bones sustained in a brutal crash in Turn 1 during the NASCAR Xfinity Series race that preceded the Daytona 500.

A virtual lock to make the NASCAR Hall of Fame whenever he’s first eligible, Busch has 51 Cup victories, 11th most all-time. His 92 triumphs in the NASCAR Xfinity Series likely is an unassailable record, and his 51 wins in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series are good for a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. for most all-time.

Busch has won at least one race at every active track on the Cup circuit—unless you count the variant Charlotte Road Course, which was introduced to the series last year.

Last year, Busch won eight Cup races, matching a single-season best he established in 2008, his first season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. The eight victories in 2008 included Busch’s only Daytona points win in the Cup series, but that came in July, not February.

Busch won the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona in 2012 and also has three Duel 150-mile qualifying race victories to his credit.

But the big prize, the Harley J. Earl trophy, has eluded him through 14 full seasons at NASCAR’s highest level. There may be other items on Busch’s bucket list, but there’s no doubt which one is at the top, highlighted in red letters.

“There’s plenty on there for sure, but the biggest one, the top item is the Daytona 500,” Busch said on Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at the speedway. “I would certainly like to knock that off a lot sooner than later, but hopefully–eventually, whether it’s the last year I do it, I can get one, but that’ll be seen later on.”

The Daytona 500 teased and tantalized the late Dale Earnhardt, dangling the prospect of victory in front of him before snatching it away with a late calamity. Earnhardt finally got his win in the Great American race in 1998, four years after he won his seventh Cup championship, but it took 20 years of trying.

Busch hasn’t been that close to the victory he covets most.

“It’s disappointing that I haven’t been able to win it yet, but, really, when I look back on all the years, there’s only been two opportunities that I feel like slipped away,” Busch said. “’08 slipped away, and the year Denny (Hamlin) won (2016). Those were the only two that I feel like we missed out on and weren’t able to capitalize.

“I was fast in ’07. I should have finished third behind (Kevin) Harvick and (Mark) Martin, but I crashed and destroyed the field coming to the checkered. So I feel like I could have won two of them, which is not all that many when you look at it. So, obviously, it’s disappointing to just not come down here and be a dominant force and a guy that’s in contention each and every time.”

The good news is that Busch probably will have many more opportunities to win the Daytona 500. His current plan is to race at the Cup level for roughly 10 more years.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be here for 10 more years… I’m Tom Brady-factoring right now, man,” Busch said. “I’ve got to work on this fine frame to make sure it lasts that long.”

To that end, Busch is finalizing a contract extension with joe Gibbs Racing.

“We’re in discussions right now,” he acknowledged. “We’re talking. It’s all been agreed to. It’s just a matter of putting the pen to the paper.”

That should dovetail with other unfinished business beyond the Daytona 500. Busch has 194 victories across NASCAR’s top three national series. He wants to reach 200 in the near term.

“Yeah, I mean 200 is another item that is on that bucket list and that checklist of what we’re looking to do,” he said. “I hope that that comes this year. I think there’s a great opportunity for that.

“I’ve got five truck races slated, seven Xfinity races slated and of course a full Cup schedule, so a lot going on in all of that and looking forward to being able to produce results and wins and again compete for a championship.”

No, Busch won’t equate his 200 victories to the 200 achieved by seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty, who recorded all of them in NASCAR’s premier series. But Busch can see himself challenging Jeff Gordon’s 93 career victories, perhaps even David Pearson’s 105.

“I feel as though I’m chasing Jeff Gordon or maybe even David Pearson,” Busch said. Maybe… I don’t know if I can get there. I like to think I can get there. I’m at 51 right now, so if I can get another 50 in the next 10 years, that would certainly be nice to go out with 100 Cup wins.”

But first things first—Busch’s next shot at the Daytona 500 is on Sunday. And after all, that’s the one item at the top of the priority list.