(JOHN RAOUX ~ Associated Press)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kyle Busch sent a message to his old team, his new team and everybody else in NASCAR.
In nearly winning the Daytona 500, Busch proved being fired from Hendrick Motorsports didn't derail his career.
Or even slow it down.
Busch led a race-high 86 laps -- more than double any other driver -- while almost scoring the biggest win of his short career. But a series of untimely caution flags erased his advantage, and once stuck in traffic, Busch couldn't quite make it all the way back to the front.
He was charging around the bottom of Daytona International Speedway on the final lap when teammate Tony Stewart moved down the track in front of him. It was a tactical error that cost both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers a chance at the win.
Stewart finished third in yet another Daytona defeat, while Busch had to settle for fourth.
Hours after the finish, the kid with a history of pouting had an unusually calm sense of clarity about the outcome.
"You take 'em when you can," he said. "That's why it's racin'."
It was an unexpected reaction from Busch, who has earned a reputation as a talented but temperamental young racer. His volatile behavior played a part in his dismissal from Hendrick, which deemed him expendable as the team searched for room in the lineup to sign Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The firing stunned the 22-year-old, who in four short years had established himself as a driver capable of winning every time he gets behind the wheel.
But it also clearly matured him, as Busch has been a model of good behavior since then. He successfully navigated his way through an intense free-agent period that ended when he joined Joe Gibbs Racing, a team second only to Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR's hierarchy.
He quickly proved it was a good fit with a series of successful test sessions, and reported to Daytona as one of the favorites to win NASCAR's biggest race.
Nevermind that his No. 18 team hasn't run for wins since the last of Bobby Labonte's 2003 victories. And it didn't matter that JGR was now driving Toyotas, a manufacturer that is hoping to rebound from a difficult 2007 debut.
Busch was fast -- real fast -- and seemed hellbent on proving his worth.
It was clear all of Speedweeks, where he was the only driver to run in all three NASCAR-sanctioned points races. He finished second in both the Truck Series race Friday and the Nationwide Series race Saturday, and was later asked if those runner-up finishes were setting him up for a failure in the 500.
"That's what I've been saving my win for this week," he quipped.
He wasn't kidding.
Busch took his first lead 40 laps into the race, quickly pulling out to a comfortable advantage. At one point he was so far ahead of the traffic, spotter Jeff Dickerson urged Busch to slow it down.
Pit stops mired him back in traffic, forcing him to work hard to get back toward the front. He aggressively maneuvered through the pack, slicing in and out of traffic while rapidly changing lanes.
It certainly caught the attention of Stewart, who couldn't help but watch his teammate charging from the rearview mirror.
"Dude, I'm sick, I think I'm going to throw up," Stewart radioed his team during the next caution. "I don't know what he's doing. Watching him, it's making me sick to watch ... like motion sickness."
Busch was prepared to make the same charge after the final caution, which set up a three-lap sprint to the finish. But leader Jeff Burton ran low to block him, and Busch dipped below NASCAR's off-limits yellow line.
He returned to the racing surface but seemed to slide back in the pack in an apparent effort to self-penalize himself before NASCAR black-flagged him. The maneuver allowed Busch to continue to race toward the checkered flag, which at that point appeared to be Stewart's for the taking.
But as Stewart rode around the high line, the hard-charging Penske Racing cars of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch closed in on the two-time champion. Kyle Busch was bringing a second line of cars around the bottom, and Stewart inexplicably decided to move to the front of that pack as they headed down the backstretch of the final lap.
But Kyle Busch was three car lengths away when Stewart made the move. Unable to hook up, the two JGR drivers could do nothing but watch the Penske cars drive away for a 1-2 finish.