DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Decked in Monster gear, chugging a tall boy of the energy drink as he was flanked by scantily clad models, Kurt Busch celebrated the biggest race win of his career.
Busch used a last-lap pass to win the crash-filled Daytona 500 on Sunday in the opening race of Monster Energy's new role as the title sponsor of NASCAR's top series. Busch, it just so happens, is also sponsored by Monster, and the company has strongly stood by him throughout his rocky career.
So this was a victory of redemption for Busch, who was suspended by NASCAR two days before the 2015 Daytona 500 for his off-track behavior, and for Monster, which has promised to pump new life into NASCAR's sagging sport.
"I've had a lot of people that have believed in me through the years, a lot of people that have supported me," Busch said.
"The more that becomes unpredictable about Daytona, the more it becomes predictable to predict unpredictability," he said. "This car's completely thrashed. There's not a straight panel on it. The strategy today, who knew what to pit when, what segments were what. Everybody's wrecking as soon as we're done with the second segment.
"The more that I've run this race, the more that I just throw caution to the wind, let it rip and just elbows out. That's what we did."
It wasn't NASCAR's finest moment, though, as multiple accidents pared down the field and had a mismatched group of drivers racing for the win at the end.
It appeared to be pole sitter Chase Elliott's race to lose, but he ran out of gas. So did Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard. As they all slipped off the pace, Busch sailed through for his first career Daytona 500 victory.
This also was the first Daytona 500 win for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is co-owned by Tony Stewart. The three-time champion retired at the end of last season and watched from the pits as his four cars raced.
"I ran this damn race  years and couldn't win it, so finally won it as an owner," Stewart said. "It's probably the most patient race I've ever watched Kurt Busch run. He definitely deserved that one, for sure."
It was a crushing loss for Elliott, who is developing a reputation as a driver who is unable to digest defeat. He left the track without comment in a car driven by his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
The win was a huge boost for Ford, which lured Stewart-Haas Racing away from Chevrolet this season and celebrated the coup with its second Daytona 500 victory in three years. Joey Logano won in a Ford in 2015.
"What a great win to start off a partnership," said Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer. "We were so fast. We knew we had a good chance, and Kurt hung in there after getting caught up in that crash. He didn't give up."
The first points race of the Monster era was run under a new format that split the 500 miles into three stages. Kyle Busch won the first stage and Kevin Harvick took the second stage, but neither was a contender for the win.
The race was slowed by wreck after wreck after wreck, including a 17-car accident at the start of the final stage that ended the days of Danica Patrick and seven-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson. It was a particularly rough incident for Patrick and her Stewart-Haas Racing team, which found all four of its cars involved in the accident.
"Just seems like that could have been avoided and was uncalled for," Johnson said of the aggressive racing behind him that triggered the accident.
Patrick wasn't sure how bad her car was damaged but knew it couldn't be fixed in the pits in the five minutes NASCAR now allots under its new rule before forcing a team to retire. New SHR teammate Clint Bowyer was also eliminated in the wreck.
"The five-minute clock is an interesting new element," she said. "I don't know if it is good or bad, but we don't want to go on track with stuff that isn't safe. It is a real shame. I feel like we could have been a contender at the end -- for sure we could have been an influencer."
Kurt Busch was able to continue, but most of the top contenders found themselves on the outside looking in.
"Some years, I think we have it where we run here and nobody wrecks and it's great racing," said Brad Keselowski, "and then you have other years like this where everybody wrecks all the time."
Roughly two hours before the race, NASCAR chairman Brian France issued drivers a stern warning about blocking.
France rarely wades into competition matters, especially in public, but he stepped to the microphone to admonish the drivers. The Truck and Xfinity Series races were sloppy wreckfests, and France hardly wanted the same spectacle for his Super Bowl.
"This is our biggest event," France told the packed drivers meeting. "What I don't normally do, and I'm going to do this today, is bring up a competition issue. This is for the drivers, and what I want you to think about. We realize blocking is part of racing. We understand that. We accept that.
"Do not look for NASCAR ... when you block somebody out there. It causes almost all the big incidents. Do not look for NASCAR ... you better hope there's a good Samaritan behind you who is going to accept that block, because they have that lane and the right to it. And I don't often make those statements."
Blocking or not, the race was a mess of tangled sheet metal and wrecked cars.