The NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) commenced the 2014 season Saturday at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) No. 54 Monster Energy team started strong with a fourth-place qualifying position, a race-high 44 laps led and a fourth-place finish. The JGR unit with Busch and this year’s backup driver Sam Hornish Jr., look to better their 2013 final standing. While last year was a dominant season with 12 wins, 11 poles, 22 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes overall, the season left them just short of an Owner’s Championship. The Monster Energy team looks to better that result and are off to a strong start with this week’s top-five finish.

The Daytona race event began with what would be the first attempt at a group qualifying session, revamped by NASCAR from last year’s single-car qualifying format. The process began as scheduled, and after the first group qualifying, the No. 54 Monster Energy team was in position to advance to the next round. Inclement weather, however, rained out the final two qualifying sessions so the first full attempt at this new format could not be fully executed. Based on lap times from the completed first qualifying session, the No. 54 JGR team would start Saturday’s DRIVE4COPD race from the fourth position, in row two.

At the drop of the green flag, Busch immediately made work of the cars ahead of him and by the completion of lap one was positioned at the head of the field. An early caution flag waved on lap nine of the scheduled 120-lap race and team crew chief Adam Stevens called his driver down pit road to replenish fuel only. Upon returning to the racetrack for the green-flag restart at lap 14, the Monster Energy machine was in second place behind driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. “There is oil on my window, but I think it’s from the No. 55,” described Busch without concern.

By lap 42, Busch resumed the lead briefly, before visiting pit road on lap 53 to conduct his second pit stop of the day. He then described the car as, “a little tight in the front,” so Busch’s team gave him four fresh tires and more Sunoco race fuel. The quick stop returned Busch to the race track in first place, once again.

A subsequent event yellow occurred on lap 70 and from the lead position still, Busch brought his black and green Camry back to the pit box for fresh right-side tires and one more round of Sunoco fuel. The green flag showed again on lap 75 as competitors began to feel the stress of final race laps approaching. With a bunched up field, and superspeedway drafting underway, Busch lost the lead and moved to the second position behind ultimate race winner Regan Smith. “There is plenty of time,” team spotter Tony Hirschman explained over the radio in a calm manner. Hirschman continued to Busch, “We know what it takes to get our lane moving – we’ll save it for later.”

Over the next 15 laps, the field remained consistent with everyone jockeying for position, while trying to abide by NASCAR’s new restriction about locking bumpers to produce a faster draft. Many teams wondered where the ‘line’ was drawn, while pushing the envelope in order to position them better. One team, the No. 99 of James Buescher was penalized when NASCAR felt they had not followed the new rules of tandem drafting and a pit road pass-through penalty was served.

Two cautions proceeded to fly further, but the No. 54 team did not visit pit road again, in order to save their strong track position, now second. Busch became frustrated at the race leader in front of him, “Stop dragging the brake and go!” he exclaimed at one point over the radio. Stuck behind a car that didn’t “move” the way Busch could have benefited from, the No. 54 found themselves in third place at lap 111.

Inside the final 10 laps in the season-opening event, a final accident occurred and brought out the yellow flag on lap 116. The field would now conduct their first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish and while they waited for the track cleanup, Stevens reported to his veteran driver, “Save, save, save!” with concern for the amount of fuel left in the tank of the JGR Toyota.

The race waved green one final time on lap 119 and Busch knew the outside line had started to deteriorate, so they lost closeness to bump. Busch tried to ‘push’ or ‘bump’ as hard as he could to get his lane moving to open up a spot for the No. 54, but it never happened. The Monster Energy team completed their first 2014 race in fourth place.

Busch commented afterwards, “It was a good race for the Monster Energy Camry.  These guys brought a good car to the race track.  It was a fast race car.  I thought we were pretty good leading the bottom there much of the day and I think we led the most laps. It certainly would be nice to end up in victory lane here and have a chance to go after a sweep for the weekend, but we have bigger fish to fry tomorrow and we’ll see how all of that plays out.  I can’t say enough about everyone from Toyota, Monster Energy and Nationwide Insurance and the fans for sticking with us here today throughout the race.”

The Monster Energy athlete continued, “The race was good early, I led a lot but wasn’t able to make the best of it there at the end unfortunately. I had a really fast race car. The Monster Energy Camry was good, we just kind of got boxed in there late. The No. 7 (Regan Smith) had a good run on the outside with the No. 6 (Trevor Bayne) pushing him.  Me and Brad (Keselowski) were trying to get going there on the bottom and the seven was holding us so tight I was rubbing his door and hitting the apron at the same time through the corner. 

“Man, he was really on us pretty tight.  Just interesting the way all that played out and how much bumping was going on and what you could do.  How far was too far?  You’re essentially playing with fire and nitrous oxide at the same time.  Not knowing if you’re going to get penalized or not and have to come down and do a penalty.  I thought it was interesting.  I thought that the end of the race was really good because there was a lot more of the bumping going on.  Through much of the race there wasn’t that so there was a lot of single file stuff going on.  You’ve got to save your equipment, got to save your cars and be able to make it to the end.”