The Daytona 500 got off to a blazing start. It became apparent from the beginning that all three lanes could sustain action, a definite improvement over last season’s races at the track. All seemed balanced and just in the NASCAR universe… then the rains came.
A six hour and 22 minute weather delay did little to slow the action once drivers got back onto the track Sunday night, however. In fact, the cars were faster under the lights than they were at any other point during Speedweeks.
Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that the night time was the right time for some, while others failed to readjust. Here is a look at where drivers rank out of the gates:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. greeted the long-awaited return of the No. 3 with a Daytona 500 story of his own, late Sunday night – a win. Junior called his victory “unbelievable” from inside the No. 88 Chevrolet after the race. However, it was highly believable for anyone who stuck around to watch the rain-delayed masterpiece.
Saying the National Guard SS was strong would be an understatement; Earnhardt’s was simply the dominant car of the 56th Great American Race. Teammate Jeff Gordon also helped, providing an important bump draft after the final green flag with three laps to go, but it appeared a piece of debris – a garbage bag or wad of tape that blocked the grill opening – gave Earnhardt the added speed and eventual cushion needed to capture a second Harley J. Earl Trophy.
Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have to be pleased with how this year’s Daytona 500 turned out.
Earnhardt was congratulated by fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick in Victory Lane, where he acknowledged favorable odds to be the first driver to qualify for the 2014 Chase. The hardest part is over for Junior, who likely needs to only finish within the top 30 in points to secure a playoff spot.
NASCAR’s most popular driver left Daytona with the first and only Sprint Cup Series WINNER decal – a sticker symbolizing the spoils of victory in a climate where winning now translates into instant championship contender, which will be visible alongside Junior’s name, above the driver’s window of the No. 88. As simple as it may seem, this small piece of décor is bound to create a lot of envy in the Phoenix garage area. Drivers like Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski will be doing their best to obtain one for themselves, after getting oh-so-close to partying at the World Center of Racing.
OK, there will be more than a just few drivers hungry to add a shiny sticker to their collection in the first stop of Cup’s desert detour, and some have no reason to be disappointed just yet; after all, surviving Daytona’s big wrecks is surely reason to smile.
Matt Kenseth proved that he still has it with a sixth in the opener, after leaving disappointed in last season’s finale. It was not solely fun and dodging wrecks for the Joe Gibbs Racing star, however; he also rebounded from a unique pit road adventure. An evasive, X Games-like 180-degree spin kept Kenseth from overshooting his pit stall early, and the crew serviced the Toyota from the opposite direction.
Perhaps NASCAR should invent a sticker for that, too.
The No. 20 team wasted no time jumping the wall and getting into position to assist Kenseth, begging the question: does JGR regularly practice backwards stops for just such an occasion? It was that smooth.
Greg Biffle did his part to improve contract talks with Roush Fenway Racing. Biffle has been with RFR for his entire career, and Sunday’s performance shows why. The No. 16 3M Ford got plenty of prime camera time, aggressively leading the pack on several occasions over the final 50 laps. Biffle even stuck around to finish eighth.
Roush teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. also flexed some newly added muscle on the final lap, punching Kyle Busch out of the way to secure a seventh-place spot, a move that was anything but sophomoric.
Finally, there is rookie Austin Dillon, who battled for 200 laps, securing his first Cup top 10 to go with the Coors Light Pole Award he scored during Speedweeks. It was not easy, but Dillon made it through the carnage when other rookies could not, earning an early lead for the Rookie of the Year award.
Unfortunately, there are two sides to that coin. Where Dillon was successful regarding points and exposure, he was a huge failure in driver relations. The No. 3 Chevrolet fueled two multi-car accidents that damaged or ended hopes for 13 different drivers, including five rookies.
What was already a long night for fellow ROTY candidate Kyle Larson was made worse when Dillon scooted up into Larson’s left-rear, sending the No. 42 spinning in the middle of three-wide traffic. Dillon escaped on that occasion, and would survive another self-started calamity 32 laps later that collected Richard Childress Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Brian Scott.
Add the No. 27 Chevrolet’s mismatched front end and 32nd-place result – product of a nightmare ride through the infield grass – to that list, and Dillon’s finishing position becomes the only positive takeaway for RCR.
Kasey Kahne’s restrictor plate woes overflowed into this season’s first race, but he should not blame himself for the No. 5’s latest struggles. The NASCAR rulebook’s finite punishment for pit road speeding deserves a second look, after he was forced to break the 55-mph limit to avoid being hit by a sliding Michael Annett. Kahne’s penalty cost him a lap, and his single-car spin while exiting the pits 53 laps earlier cost him another. Heavy involvement in two wrecks was even worse, making Kahne’s 31st seem like a pleasant gift.
Kurt Busch can relate.
Contact from Trevor Bayne damaged the No. 41 Chevrolet’s rear fender brace before a lap-90 pit stop, and complications only compounded as the race progressed. Busch later went spinning into the infield mud sometime after the brace broke completely, but officials elected not to throw the yellow flag, and he finished a lap off the pace in 21st.
Busch was just one part of a lost week for Stewart-Haas Racing.
A fuel pressure malfunction hampered Tony Stewart’s return to Cup competition, and wrecks claimed Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick. That is a big 4-for-4 in the wrong category – damaged and destroyed SHR equipment.
Between Thursday’s Duel flip and Sunday’s blown engine, Daytona was a nightmare this Speedweeks for Clint Bowyer.
SHR was not the only premier organization to take multiple hits; Michael Waltrip Racing was even worse, while failing in an attempt to mend a tainted reputation.
The No. 55 Dream Machine was severely damaged during a lap-148 wreck; driver Brian Vickers continued afterwards, finishing 30th, and that was the organization’s best effort. Meanwhile, restrictor plate ringer Michael Waltrip wrecked his backup car after totaling the primary in Thursday’s Duel.
Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer put on the greatest show of all, for all the wrong reasons. Bowyer self-diagnosed a blown engine quickly enough to climb out of the No. 15, throw his gloves and helmet into the car, and walk away before the crew closed the hood of his smoked-out Camry. His dream of winning Daytona ended in 127 laps.
MWR castaway Martin Truex, Jr. did not even last that long, giving up his front-row spot to start the race from the rear of the field. The No. 78 Chevrolet’s engine expired after only 30 laps, making Truex the inauspicious recipient of one driver point.
Aside from a certain six-time champion, drivers like Truex, who were forced to go with backup cars, probably did not enjoy the Daytona 500. Nevertheless, those unable to meet expectations will have a chance to start anew this week in Arizona.
After all, it only takes one win to earn a sticker.
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