Kurt Busch had a monster start to the season, winning the Daytona 500. Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy, which kicked off its first season as the title sponsor for NASCAR’s top series Sunday with the season opener.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kurt Busch won his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, prevailing with a last-lap pass on an afternoon that was more survival of the fittest than a contest of the fastest. The race, NASCAR’s biggest showpiece and its season-opening event, included one crash after another.

There was a 17-car wreck that took out, among others, three of the four members of the Stewart-Haas Racing team. But it was Busch, in the team’s only surviving entry, who came away with the victory — though not unscathed.

“This car’s completely thrashed,” he said of his Ford. “There’s not a straight panel on it.”

Busch’s victory came in his 17th start in the event, and after a race in which he led one lap: the final one. It was also Busch’s first victory in 32 starts at Daytona International Speedway; he has three second places in the 500.

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Busch’s team owner, former NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, drove in 18 Daytona 500 races and never won, so he knows firsthand how difficult the event is to win. But he also knows how unexplainable the route to the checkered flag can be.

“It’s probably the most patient race I ever saw Kurt run,” Stewart said.

Patience was needed, given all the caution flags. Of the 40 cars that started the race, 25 finished.

“It was a mess out there,” said A.J. Allmendinger, who finished third.

Ryan Blaney was second, 0.228 seconds behind Busch.

Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw finished seventh.

On Twitter, Kahne wrote his Chevrolet “was really fast today and in perfect position taking white flag. Hate it started running out of gas.”

At one point, three multicar crashes had drawn half the field into a vortex of accidents.

When the racing resumed, it did so without some of the sport’s biggest names. Gone were drivers such as defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Danica Patrick.

It was the race’s second wreck — which brought the fifth caution flag — that took out Johnson. Trevor Bayne nicked the back of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, sending him spinning into a wall.

“That could have been avoided, and it wasn’t called for,” Johnson said of the wreck afterward, fuming. “From the minute I got off of Turn 2 on the entire back straightaway, I kept getting hit, and the rear tires are off the ground.”

Kurt Busch, while taking his shots, avoided the kind that knocked out others.

“I was thankful I got through a lot of the wrecks,” he said. “Daytona is always survival. Ninety percent of this race is to protect the car, and 10 percent is to go for aggression.”

Even when Busch opted for aggression on the final lap, he knew there were no guarantees his strategy would work.

It was the 10th time in the race’s 59 years the champion won on a final-lap pass — and the first time a winner led for a single lap.

Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy, which is in its first season as the title sponsor for NASCAR’s top series.