Now that the checkered flag has flown over an eventful final weekend at the “World Center of Racing,” the Sprint Cup Series season is finally kicking into high gear.
Jimmie Johnson finds himself in a familiar position atop the standings after Race 1 of 36, leading NASCAR’s premier drivers westward towards the desert oasis of Phoenix International Raceway.
While defending champion Brad Keselowski managed to maintain the blistering pace, other perennial favorites must now pick up the pieces after faltering early. Here’s the rundown on where they presently stand in this post-Daytona 500 edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
Leading off with two former champions usually wouldn’t be abnormal, but finding Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski suddenly atop the totem pole seems a little strange after they weren’t among those making headlines leading up to the 55th Annual Great American Race.
Not to take away from Johnson’s second Daytona 500 victory, but his recent form at the birthplace of NASCAR didn’t equate to the sum of his fortunes on Sunday afternoon (not a single top-10 finish, at the 500 since winning it for the first time in 2006). But as other stars faded under overcast conditions, the five-time champion was able to fight off a late charge from Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. while leading after the white flag, winning in his 400th career Sprint Cup Series start.
The only thing slowing Johnson down was the damage he attained to the front end of his No. 48 Chevrolet SS during post-race burnouts and donuts through the infield grass.
Fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski also sustained breakages to his machine, the only difference being that his occurred under green flag conditions. The defending series champion fought through adversity on two occasions to achieve a career-high finish at the 2.5-mile track, the first being damage that happened during a multi-car crash ignited when Kyle Busch bump drafted Kasey Kahne awkwardly exiting the tri-oval on lap 33, sending the No. 5 car spinning through traffic. A repaired Blue Deuce later survived being the victim of an accordion effect that inevitably sent Trevor Bayne skating across the track, collecting several drivers in the process.
To go through all that, and then lead the 500 for several laps with a Ford Fusion that looked like it had been tossed in the junkyard was one of the more impressive achievements of this reigning champ’s young career.
Two leading contenders for the Rookie of the Year Award showed just why they’re both deserving of the accolade by posting solid finishes in their second career Daytona 500 starts.
Danica Patrick backed up her historic, pole-winning time by becoming the first woman ever to lead during the season’s inaugural event. Patrick stayed ahead of the carnage that was on display at multiple times behind her, recording an eighth-place result.
Perhaps more impressive was her ability to keep the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet consistently in a good position throughout the day, even as the laps wound down and other drivers began to aggressively jockey for position.
She was able to outdo her highly touted boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who rallied after narrowly avoiding the lap 139 accident involving Bayne and Keselowski. Despite some damage, he posted a 12th-place finish after running mid-pack for most of the event.
Other smaller teams also capitalized on avoiding the multi-car pileups and rode to uncharacteristically high finishes, particularly Regan Smith (Phoenix Racing – seventh), Michael McDowell (Phil Parsons Racing – ninth), and J.J. Yeley (Tommy Baldwin Racing – tenth). These drivers either tied or set career-best marks at Daytona with top-10 finishes, which is great news for their teams, all looking to lock up more sponsorship in order to compete in a full slate of scheduled dates minus the start-and-park strategy.
Is something detrimentally amiss with *Toyota Racing Development’s* Gen-6 engine package?
That’s a question that engineers from the Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing camps will delve into before the Subway Fresh Fit 500k after several Toyota drivers experienced motor-related issues late in the running at Daytona.
A good day for JGR went awry after Matt Kenseth’s race-leading No. 20 Toyota went up in smoke after 149 laps. The organization’s newest driver had been complaining of a vibration during the early going, initially thought to have originated from a loose wheel. Less than four circuits later, another member of the dominant Camry trio was also forced to pit road, where Kyle Busch found smoke streaming from his exhaust pipes roughly 20 laps before scheduled final stops.
Soon thereafter, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex, Jr. self-diagnosed his NAPA Auto Parts machine with an engine-related issue on lap 175. That left the driver of the No. 56 nursing his car home in the 24th position. Smaller teams, driven by Michael Waltrip and Joe Nemechek, respectively also experienced some motor problems.
Richard Childress Racing drivers and their new Chevrolet SS models didn’t fare well, either, after the four-car effort dodged much of the pandemonium that manifested during Speedweeks. Race day favorite Kevin Harvick was swept up as part of the massive accident on lap 33, while veteran Jeff Burton and Nationwide regular Austin Dillon met their demises in separate episodes afterwards. Paul Menard appeared to be in the clear after completing 199 laps, during the grand finale but hopes of a clean sheet were shredded in a Turn 1 wreck on the final tour around the venue. It’s the first time since 2008 the organization didn’t have a top-10 car in the sport’s biggest race; what’s worse, they head home with all four cars needing extensive work down in the body shop.
February 24th, 2013 will serve as a lasting black mark in the memories of fantasy team managers and gamblers alike as popular picks like Harvick, Kenseth, and the ill-fated Tony Stewart all found that a victory wasn’t in the cards.
Kenseth would lead a race-high 86 laps before his chances at becoming a repeat champion came unglued due to engine failure.
Placing young Keelan behind the wheel of the No. 29 Budweiser SS for the third time wasn’t enough to help the elder Harvick avoid a different type of catastrophe. While Kahne was spinning during the headmost “big one”, calamity unfolded elsewhere as “Happy” was smashed hard against the outside retaining wall. Following a common safety procedure by letting go of the wheel, he then went ricocheting off Juan Pablo Montoya and into the now 0-for-15 Stewart, ending any chance of a second Daytona 500 victory.
These guys left Florida with their share of bumps and bruises, but few drivers feel worse than Carl Edwards, who accounted for more wrecked equipment than the rest of his fellow Roush Fenway Racing colleagues combined.
Starting the day off on the wrong foot, Edwards first failed to appear when his name was called during driver introductions. If that wasn’t enough, he would later wreck his Ford Fusion for the fifth time in the past month, capping possibly the worst Speedweeks ever.
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