It was quite obvious to anyone who walked into Daytona International Speedway on Friday night that the No. 3 was back in the house. The new Dale Jr. Wrangler merchandise was everywhere that you looked in the grandstands, the Sprint FanZone and in the camping areas. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the overwhelming crowd favorite coming into the race and nothing less than a victory would appease the masses.
The masses went home happy on Friday night.
Points leader Brad Keselowski started on pole in his No. 22 Discount Tire Dodge Challenger and the nearly identical No. 26 of Parker Kligerman started alongside. Rains earlier in the day that washed out Sprint Cup qualifying made the racetrack a little better for the cars to race on.
At the start, the two Discount Tire Dodge Challengers ran side-by-side for the lead for the first couple of laps until Keselowski pulled out the advantage. Behind Keselowski, the front few cars got into single file.
The first caution came out on lap 7 when the No. 27 of Jennifer Jo Cobb spun in turn 3 and then hit her teammate for this week Johnny Chapman in the No. 43 Chevrolet. Both cars then hit the outside wall. Cobb’s car burst into flames after the hit. Cobb waited until the fire died down before exiting her Driver Boutique Ford OK. Chapman walked away as well.
On the double-file restart, Kevin Harvick took the lead from Keselowski with help from behind. Carl Edwards then took his Copart Ford to the point for a couple of laps before Clint Bowyer claimed the top spot. Keselowski retook the lead on lap 27 as the teams prepared for their first round of stops.
However, just as the first of the leaders committed to come onto pit road for green-flag stops, the No. 15 of Michael Annett got loose up high exiting turn 4 and spun. Annett did not hit anything and continued, eventually finishing 12th.
This brought the leaders to pit road for the first round of stops. Kyle Busch, who was able to take the lead right before the caution when Keselowski peeled off to pit, kept the lead during the round of stops. After the restart, Busch was able to hold his advantage for the first few laps.
However, Busch’s teammate Joey Logano was able to claim the advantage for a lap, then Clint Bowyer took another turn up in front. At halfway, Justin Allgaier put his Verizon Wireless Dodge Challenger up in front as part of an Penske 1-2 with Keselowski. At the beginning of the weekend, many of the competitors feared such a scenario, but it turned out to be unfounded. Allgaier led for 11 laps before Busch got him back on lap 61.
Earnhardt Jr. hung towards the back of the top 10 for much of the early part of the race. However, after halfway, the No. 3 began making some moves to position himself to pounce on the leaders.
On lap 70, Earnhardt Jr. made his move on Busch to take the lead. Almost immediately afterwards, the caution flew for debris on the backstretch (a spring rubber). This allowed Earnhardt Jr. to keep his advantage, and brought the field to pit road for the second round of stops. Earnhardt Jr., with the help of his Sprint Cup pit crew, who volunteered to pit the No. 3 for the race, won the race off pit road and kept his advantage.
From the restart on, Earnhardt Jr. was not seriously challenged for the rest of the race. However, Paul Menard hit the wall exiting turn 2 with four laps to go and shed debris onto the track. This caused the fourth and final caution and led to a decision. To pit or not to pit. Earnhardt Jr., along with eight others, chose to stay out. Busch, who was third at the time of the yellow, chose to pit but had a bad stop and came out in 13th.
On the restart, Earnhardt Jr. got a push from Logano and pulled away enough from the pack so that the cars would be single-file up front. On the final lap, Logano looked to the high side of Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch, but could not get enough momentum to get alongside the Wrangler No. 3. Earnhardt Jr. held off the pack to claim his first victory of the season, and his sixth career Nationwide Series victory at Daytona. This is one behind the all-time leader, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Earnhardt Jr. was not so much pleased with his victory, but simply relieved.
“I didn’t take the usual pleasure of winning tonight’s race,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the post-race press conference. “If we didn’t win [the race], it would have been a waste of time.”
It was clear from this statement that Earnhardt Jr. understands the significance of the No. 3 is to not only his own fans, but to fans of his late father. This will also be the last time that Earnhardt Jr. will run the No. 3, something that he has stated repeatedly throughout the weekend.
Second-place finisher Logano was happy with his finish, but a bit wistful that he couldn’t get the spoils of victory.
“We had a good car [tonight]. I knew it was going to be a good car before the race started,” Logano said after the race. “I felt like me and Kyle [Busch] were able to work good together and I feel like maybe if a few of us pushed to the lead, maybe I would’ve been able to do something to beat him.”
“It seems like every time I come to restrictor-plate racetrack like this, I push someone to a win,” Logano continued. “I just can’t get anyone to push me yet.”
Following Earnhardt Jr. and Logano was rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a career-best third. This finish was good enough to put the No. 6 back into the Top 30 in owner points, thus locking Stenhouse into next Friday night’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. Points leader Keselowski was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.
Bowyer drove the No. 21 Zaxby’s Chevrolet to a sixth-place finish, then it was Busch in seventh. Busch was the highest finishing driver who pitted on the final caution for tires. Ryan Newman was eighth, followed by Brian Ickler in the No. 16. Rookie Steve Arpin rounded out the top 10.
There were four cautions for 16 laps during the 255-mile race, extended to 102 laps due to the green-white-checkered. There were 13 lead changes between eight drivers and the average speed was 148.248 mph.
Keselowski’s points lead is now 277 points over Edwards. Allgaier is third, followed by Busch (despite missing three races) and Harvick. Menard is still in sixth, then it is Logano seventh, Steve Wallace eighth and Brendan Gaughan ninth. Jason Leffler rounds out the top 10.
Next weekend, the Nationwide Series returns to action at the Chicagoland Speedway near Joliet, Illinois for the Dollar General 300.