Chase Elliott will start Sunday as the youngest pole winner in Daytona 500 history. Saturday, the 20-year-old proved why he’s ready to graduate to NASCAR’s top level full-time.
Elliott drove a masterful race down the stretch in the JR Motorsports No. 88 Chevy, taking the lead from Joey Logano on lap 107 and then using teammate Elliott Sadler as his offensive lineman. The duo darted away and when Logano made his comeback, finally pushing forward on the white-flag lap, it was Elliott who was there to administer a block himself on the tri-oval. The contact destroyed his right-rear quarterpanel but was enough to stall Logano’s momentum, leaving the No. 88 sitting in victory lane and increasing the buzz surrounding Elliott’s landmark 500 start from the front row.
Series veterans and Sprint Cup regulars dominated a race that included a 77-lap green-flag run. Just a half-dozen cars or so were in the lead draft at the time of the fourth and final caution; just 14 total finished on the lead lap despite a race devoid of Daytona’s “Big One.” The mostly single-file competition at times caused some drivers to lobby for the return of tandem drafting, once a hallmark of XFINITY Series competition on superspeedways following the event.
For Elliott, Saturday’s win gave him much-needed momentum and a boost of confidence heading into the Great American Race. During the Duels, Elliott struggled to find drafting partners as he hasn’t yet earned the full trust of his Cup Series contemporaries. That wasn’t the case in XFINITY, a place where the 2014 series champion blasted through the field with ease from his 19th starting spot.
“There’s such a different style of drafting,” he said. “These cars are all about the pusher, really getting on a guy and pushing that limit of the rule of not locking bumpers. It seems like if you have a guy behind you that’s really good, that isn’t going to get you in trouble, usually that lane moves forward. It’s a very different style of racing. I’ve had a chance to do this three, four times the past couple years. Whereas the Cup cars, they get spread out and have big runs, you get these big shoves, the cars will get pushed way out.”
Elliott’s education came in handy while helping pull teammate Sadler to the front. Hopping over to JRM, he starts this season the point leader, a fourth-place result the beginning to what he hopes is a partnership that can produce championship results.
“A lot of people don’t know the history of Dale Jr. and Kelley [Earnhardt] and myself,” he said. “We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. For our relationship to come full circle and be at this race team, to see how much effort they have put into the program this winter. Showed today, three of the top four were JR Motorsports cars. I feel like we have some good stuff coming down the road.”
Darrell Wallace, Jr. was simply happy to finish at Daytona. Throughout his career in NASCAR’s top three series, he had just one top-10 finish in five previous starts entering Saturday. At one point late in the race, Wallace lost the lead draft but the final caution provided him with another opportunity to move forward to sixth. The way the guy acted after the race, you would think he took home the XFINITY Series championship… and then some.
— Darrell Wallace Jr (@BubbaWallace) February 20, 2016
Young Dakoda Armstrong struggled last season driving full-time for Richard Petty Motorsports. Now with the lesser-funded JGL Racing team, perhaps the lower-key ride offers him an opportunity to relax and grow. The 24-year-old produced a quiet, respectable 14th-place finish as the final driver on the lead lap.
Yes, Ty Dillon won the pole and was in contention virtually the entire race. But for a driver who won two of three practice sessions, entering the day a heavy favorite dropping to 13th seemed a disappointing end to what he hopes is a championship season. It’s not that the No. 3 did anything wrong; Dillon just never positioned himself right over the race’s final few laps. Sometimes, that’s how the ball bounces in plate racing but it seems like Dillon lost an opportunity here.
David Starr had a top-10 run going with TriStar Motorsports until a speeding penalty during the long green-flag run cost him a lap. He wound up 18th, disappointed in his performance while teammate Benny Gordon wound up inside the garage. Gordon broke a transmission after running inside the top 5 at one point and had to settle for 35th.
Jeff Green had perhaps his best run in years as the former start-and-parker was commissioned to go the distance for Rick Ware Racing. But here, too, mechanical failure took hold as a busted transmission took his No. 17 Chevy inside the garage while running inside the top 15.
Bobby Labonte’s return to the XFINITY Series – and to Joe Gibbs Racing – never really got off the ground. Labonte was tapped by Elliott, sent into a spin and got involved in the day’s largest incident early which involved about a half-dozen cars. The toe was knocked out on the front of Labonte’s car, a sour handling taste the team never really got to fix due to the race’s green-flag flavor. By the time the fourth caution flew he was two laps down; the end result was a disappointing 23rd.
Erik Jones, meanwhile saw his rookie season begin with the same type of stumble. Involved in the Labonte wreck, the car was a mangled mess and simply finishing the race was itself an achievement for the No. 20 Toyota. Restrictor plate wrecks happen but the 31st-place result from Jones puts him in a bit of a points hole to start the season and the Rookie of the Year race. Brandon Jones, by comparison took his damaged race car to seventh on the lead lap in a strong 2016 debut for his No. 33 Richard Childress Racing team.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Blake Koch entered the season paired with a brand new team in Kaulig Racing, a transition that should have tempered expectations for Daytona. Instead? He ran well throughout Speedweeks, qualified ninth and then used fuel strategy to stay on the lead lap through the final caution flag. Jumping up the field to ninth by the checkers it’s the strong start an independent team needs to find their footing in NASCAR’s second-tier division.
7 of 40 drivers (17.5%) in the field will race in tomorrow’s Daytona 500.
Four of those drivers finished inside the top 5 including winner Chase Elliott. They also combined to lead 105 of 120 laps during the race.
Just one car, the No. 89 of Morgan Shepherd, chose to start-and-park during Saturday’s event. Even then, Shepherd ran nearly half the distance (59 laps) before pulling in early. With a fully-funded field in Sprint Cup tomorrow that means NASCAR’s top three series dealt with a sole start-and-park in their three races, a sign that this once-salient issue on the circuit is breathing its final breath. (One can only hope. Why would fans pay to see cars drive a handful of laps and pull in early with no intention of winning the race?)
The Final Word
After a litany of large wrecks in recent plate races, NASCAR drivers reminded us today that yes, occasionally you can get to the finish at Daytona and Talladega without creating a Demolition Derby. You saw a bunch of veterans executing solid strategy with the key moment easily being Sadler knocking Logano out of line on that final restart. Once the JR Motorsports cars got in front, you got the feeling they weren’t going to be passed no matter what (although Logano gave it one hell of a final shot).
Other pluses: we got through a Speedweeks event without a giant wreck; the series appears healthier than originally appeared in December; Sadler, Wallace, Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Jones will produce one heck of a title chase.
The downer, as happens all too often, is that the top-3 finishers were Sprint Cup Series regulars. NASCAR even sent Kahne to the radio room to ensure the print/web media got at least one XFINITY regular for coverage. While Elliott’s win is a big deal, his Speedweeks tempering some of the Sprint Cup influence here the same old story of XFINITY regulars taking a back seat has started again in 2016.