Well, Daytona is in the rearview mirror. Depending on who you ask, that’s either a real bummer or can’t come too soon, depending on how the race went. The thing about plate tracks is that they’re such an opportunity for teams to compete—if they’re lucky and avoid trouble. They can also become exercises in frustration. Still, it’s refreshing to see some new faces in the top 10, and the plate tracks offer an opportunity for that because the cars are much more equal—horsepower is restricted, and that puts the onus on handling, strategy, and driving…and the cream rises to the top in many cases. That includes many drivers on this list. Last week I said that nobody should ever mistake these teams’ lack of money and resources for a lack of talent and heart. A lot of drivers stayed in it all day Sunday and had a great start to the season to show at the end…and some did the exact same thing and had nothing to show for it but crumpled sheet metal. Those teams will be looking to rebound, and the next couple of weeks will show what they’re capable of when the chips are stacked against them
Top of the Class: Daytona I
The restrictor-plate races are events most small teams have circled in red on their calendars because when the cars are more or less equal, anything can happen—just ask Wood Brothers Racing and Ryan Blaney, who came within just one pass of wining it all. Pushing Blaney to his second-place finish was JTG Daugherty Racing driver AJ Allmendinger, a driver who has struggled at plate tracks in the past but found his groove Sunday. Also scoring a top-5 finish was Aric Almirola for Richard Petty Motorsports. All in all, half of the top ten came from the small-team ranks, with Michael Waltrip finishing eighth for Premium Motorsports and Matt DiBenedetto finishing ninth for Go FAS racing. Finally, Brendan Gaughan brought Beard Motorsports a super-solid 11th-place result. Part of the recipe for success Sunday was avoiding trouble, but that didn’t stop a lot of the sport’s smallest teams from racing for every position they could get…and it paid off.
Michael McDowell got the season started with a top 15 for Leavine Family Racing, but he might have walked away a little disappointed as he ran inside the top 5 for a chunk of the race and looked capable of finishing there until he ran out of fuel with two laps to go. Also grabbing solid top-20 runs to open the season were Front Row Motorsports’ Landon Cassill, Cole Whitt for Tri-Star Motorsports and Elliott Sadler for Tommy Baldwin Racing. It’s a great way for these teams to kick off the season with a little momentum and to possibly attract sponsorship.
Cup newbies Joey Gase and Corey Lajoie finished in the top 25 on Sunday, but took some lumps doing so. Both finished multiple laps down after sustaining damage in the day’s many incidents, but the bright side is that they did finish and gain experience. Veteran David Ragan, in 25th, was in the same boat in his return to Front Row, getting bounced around during the race but running at the end. The rest of the teams here suffered extensive damage and were unable to finish. They get some benefit of the doubt because it’s a plate race, and hey, plenty of drivers for bigger and wealthier times also suffered the same fate. Jeffrey Earnhardt, in 26th for Circle Sport, triggered a late race crash when he missed a signal from the cars in front of him that one of them was pitting. Ty Dillon was a victim of circumstance in the Germain Racing machine along with Chris Buescher in the second JTG Daugherty car, and DJ Kennington looked like he was a bit over his head in his Daytona 500 debut. It’s hard to say where any of these might have finished; Ragan and Dillon both had decent runs before getting caught up.
There will be a few new faces in the crowd at Atlanta. Cody Ware is listed in the No 51 Rich Ware Racing entry. Derrike Cope will pilot the No. 55 for Premium Motorsports, with Reed Sorenson in the No. 15. Gray Gaulding will be in BK Racing’s no 23
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) February 26, 2017
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) February 23, 2017
Still so mad! We were 8th coming out of turn 4!! Just one more teaspoon of fuel and we would have had a top 10 in @beardoil75 's 1st race
— Brendan Gaughan (@Brendan62) February 27, 2017
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) February 27, 2017
— Kerry Dale Earnhardt (@KerryDEarnhardt) February 27, 2017
— Germain Racing (@GermainRacing) February 26, 2017
— Aaron's (@AaronsCo) February 26, 2017