Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch celebrates his Daytona 500 win with New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Heartbreak for Elliott, elation for Busch at Daytona

Just when you thought once the Falcons gave back the Super Bowl that there could be no more variations on the theme of Atlanta-connected sports heartbreak, they ran the Daytona 500.

There was young Chase Elliott, latest in the line of Dawsonville’s royal racing family, King’s Ridge Christian School class of 2014, in control of the Great American Race.

An afternoon of synchronized wreckage — as well the 25 of the 40-car field that was still in running condition — was behind him. It was the infamous Shanahan-inspired pass that ultimately had doomed the Falcons just three weeks ago. This time, a pass was a very good thing, as Elliott swooped into the lead with 65 miles left to run.

He assumed control at that point of a race that was for the most part out of control. As he worked high and low on the track, blocking all intentions to pass him, Fox TV broadcasters began to measure Elliott for his coming-out victory. He had the car; he had enjoyed more than his share of racing luck by avoiding any major collision; and everyone knew he was going to be the next big thing.

What’s the worst that could happen?

How about running out of gas with just three laps remaining? How about leading 23 of the final 26 laps, only to sputter on fumes and watch from the rear as Kurt Busch wins the Daytona 500 on a last-lap move of his own? He would finish 14th

There were firsts written all over Sunday’s race. It was the first Daytona 500 win for Busch, who just two years ago was suspended from this event for a domestic violence allegation. (No charges were filed.) For his car owner, Tony Stewart, it represented a triumph he never could experience as a driver.

“I ran this damn race (17) years and couldn’t win it. So, I finally won it as an owner,” Stewart said at the finish.

“If I knew all I had to do to win this was retire, I would have retired a long time ago,” joked Stewart, who made the 2016 season his last as a driver.

It would not, however, mark the first victory on NASCAR’s major league series for last season’s rookie of the year. As he did Sunday, Elliott began the 2016 Daytona 500 on the pole, only to crash just 45 miles into the race. Sunday’s turn of events was even more crushing.

Not that it was any consolation, but Busch gave the kid his due during his victory press conference: “(Elliott) definitely had the car to beat. He’s going to be a superstar in this sport.”

Elliott was one of four drivers to run out of gas at the end as the bulk of the field was in the same position of trying to nurse their thirsty rides to the end. Nobody could afford to pit for gas and lose track position. Everyone crossed their fingers and drove on.

With lessons yet to learn about professionally processing such losses, Elliott left the track without comment, driven away by his father, Hall of Famer and two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott.

A lead with 25 laps to go is not quite the same as a 25-point Super Bowl lead. But losing either is equally deflating.

For most of the race, it seemed to be more a question of survival than winning. Much was made of the new format for this season of racing which divided races into three segments: For the record, the first-ever segment winner was Busch’s brother, Kyle. For a good part of Sunday, however, it appeared NASCAR had modeled its format from the “Mad Max” movie series.

In a series of wrecks, nearly 40 percent of the field was taken out of the race before those finishing laps. The departed included a good number of the race headliners, including seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and last year’s Daytona 500 victor, Denny Hamlin.

Returning after a long concussion convalescence, Earnhardt at least did no more damage to his brain.

“Luckily the hit wasn’t that hard and we’ll be able to get to Atlanta and compete again,” Earnhardt said, looking forward to next week’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“At least we went out leading the race,” he said, managing a joke.

Otherwise, there was more body work going on during this race than at a Kardashian spa day.

Even the winner was wounded. Only five cars finished with no damage.

“The side was wrinkled up,” Busch said. “You let the rough edges drag and go for it.”

He also was caught up in the fuel suspense.

“With the fuel situation, (his crew chief) said we were half a lap shy,” he said. “I wasn’t helping any. I was going full throttle. Either we were all going to come to the line together as we did or we were going to run out of fuel together. We all were on the same sequence.”

The finish would treat him kindly while, almost out of habit, it kicked the upstart from Georgia where it hurts the most.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.