NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: First, You Must Finish the Daytona 500

Think Small

Turn 3 was dubbed “Calamity Corner” years back at Daytona International Speedway, and during Sunday’s 60th Daytona 500, it was the place that saw dreams end and hopeful runs begin for many Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series underdogs.

The final 10 laps, specifically, gave us a roller coaster of stories pit-balling between the top three and outside the lead draft. Following a green-flag stint of more than 60 laps late, indeed, it was the closing stages that turned the single-file train upside-down.

And after a day of mostly competitive, close pack racing, it was almost expected to last until the end. For the underdogs, it’s the pack racing that holds prime opportunity to reach spots otherwise deemed impossible to grasp on the average weekend. But it’s also the exact type of competition that can — and usually does — end those opportunities far too soon.

With eight cautions including a total of 33 cars — like underdog Mark Thompson told me after his first and final Daytona 500 — a simple sighting of the checkered flag was accomplishment enough.

Teams like Thompson’s Carl Long Motorsports or a Go FAS Racing, Beard Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, etc.,  don’t have enough equipment to trash a car and not feel the pressure the following week(s). For some, a crash fresh off in the 500 can even lead to weeks of catch-up.

Thankfully for some, they brought their vehicles home in semi-clean condition. Others are experiencing some of the highest points of their careers while the rest have already probably hit “start route” to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

In other words, a typical post-Daytona week for underdog teams.

Top of the Class

It’s pretty cool when the sport can still have the Nos. 3, 43 and 11 sweep the podium spots in a Cup race. And it’s even cooler when one of those boys is a rookie.

Darrell Wallace, Jr. ran just his fifth Cup race Sunday night and finished second behind 500 champion Austin Dillon. Richard Petty Motorsports’ debut with Chevrolet kicked off with a powerful run in Thursday’s Can-Am Duel No. 2 when “Bubba” came home third. That result lined him seventh on the Sunday grid.

Through the development of the 500, Wallace about saw it all. From those hair-raising crash avoidances to three-wide sandwich deals and moments of doubt, the 24-year-old persevered to stay in true contention for an underdog upset to kick off the 2018 season.

Restarting sixth on the final overtime restart, contact between leader Aric Almirola and Dillon saw the No. 43 sneak through the middle to make a charge at second place. And he got it… while crashing across the finish line between Denny Hamlin and the hardy SAFER barrier.

More than anything, Wallace’s post-race presser not only showed NASCAR nation the emotions the race can bring but also the trials and troubles it can take to make it to the series.

Behind the feel-good story was another one in Chris Buescher. The Texan, who is competing in his third full-time Cup season, had similar ups and downs throughout the afternoon but kept his No. 37 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet together to see the checkered flag in the fifth spot. The result is his first top-five finish since Bristol of 2016, and in fact, it was a double top 10 for the team, as AJ Allmendinger sneaked into 10th on the final lap.

Right in front of the No. 47 was Michael McDowell, a renowned plate racer who scored ninth to kick off his first season with Front Row Motorsports.

Before you stop at the top 10, I must tell you to move a little further. These nutty wrecks gave huge light to tiny teams in the forms of Rick Ware Racing and Ricky Benton Racing. For RWR, Justin Marks entered the race for the first time and scored the team’s best-ever Cup finish of 12th. Heck, it was the team’s finish top-25 result in 31 total races.

RBR had David Gilliland in their No. 92. Gilliland, 41, brought years of experience and plate racing success to the first-time Cup organization, bringing the Ford camp a 14th-place finish.

BK Racing was the last entry in the race and started the weekend with white corner panels and no time in qualifying. However, it all ended with Earthwater sponsorship and a top-20 finish, as Gray Gaulding wheeled the No. 23 to the mid-pack spot. The result continued a solid run of plate races for the Toyota team after Gaulding’s finishes of ninth and 20th at Talladega last year and Corey Lajoie‘s 11th at Daytona last July.

This just-outside-the-top-20 area will most likely be common ground for the underdogs and most of this column in 2018. With 40 cars each race, to say you beat half of them is something these teams will strive for in momentum. This weekend saw Jeffrey Earnhardt just miss the cut, finishing 21st in his debut with StarCom Racing.

Mark Thompson came home 22nd in his No. 66. Now, this entry was full of interesting fun facts: Thompson ran just his second Cup race in 26 years, became the oldest ever to compete in the Daytona 500 (66 years old in the No. 66 car) and decided to hang the helmet up following his first ever completed Cup race.

“I wanted to finish the 500 and have a car at the end of the race, which I do,” Thompson told me post-race. “To retire from racing, it went perfect. It’s nice to stay healthy as long as I’ve stayed healthy.”

Looking For More

It took some thinking, but Matt DiBenedetto had to be put in this section. At the end of the day, he sure was looking for more than a 27th-place DNF and a torn-up Ford to start the new year, right?

He stood out because of the run he was on until that point on lap 198, when he was collected in the race’s final Big One with just two laps to go. DiBenedetto was running third a lap before the big wreck and you can be sure to believe DeBurrito Nation was heartbroken when Kurt Busch broke sideways and the No. 32 Ford was pounded into the Turn 1 wall. Day was done, but what a run.

Similar feeling spreads to Brendan Gaughan, who was pushing DiBenedetto in these final laps before the crash also ended his race in the garage, 28th for Beard Motorsports.

DJ Kennington got significant damage when Kyle Busch cut a tire in Stage 1. The second-time Daytona 500 starter still trailed on, only to reach 24th spot for Gaunt Brothers Racing.

David Ragan is always among the underdogs to watch entering a plate race. However, the Front Row man barely made it out of the first half when Chase Elliott creamed the wall, spun down and collected Ragan’s right-front corner. Big hit and it finished his day in 30th.

Kasey Kahne and Danica Patrick both saw trouble during the same lap 101 crash and neither were able to continue, finishing 34th and 35th. For Patrick, it was the last start of her career and it came with Premium Motorsports.

Wrapping up those who not only wanted better but needed better on Sunday is Ty Dillon and Corey Lajoie. Dillon crashed out hard with Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports on lap 59, finishing 39th, while Lajoie didn’t have a real shot at this one, blowing a motor on the race’s eighth lap.

Otherdogs

This section is hoping to nail down on the top three underdog performers from both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series events from the weekend.

Starting off with the wild Truck race Friday night, the underdog man of the race was Joe Nemechek, who scored a second straight top-five finish at Daytona in his No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Chevrolet. At 54 years young, that’s a true testament to his perseverance.

Next was Scott Lagasse Jr., who said he “tried to win and lost” when he ran second on the final lap before falling to fifth. It was his first top-five finish since 2015.

And lastly, Jordan Anderson scored his first top-10 finish in his 58th Truck Series start when he brought his self-owned Toyota to ninth place. He also received some style points after spinning his No. 3 across the finish line.

On the XFINITY Series side, this top-three group of underdogs barely left the top five at the end of Saturday’s insane five-overtime finish. Kaz Grala came home fourth in his first XFINITY start. It was only the sixth top five for JGL Racing.

Behind him was someone who also scored his first top five, however, he had to wait a little longer than just one race. Garrett Smithley came home fifth for JD Motorsports in his 67th career start. It was only the fourth for the team in 20 years of XFINITY operation.

Finally, Spencer Gallagher had a career day in Daytona, scoring his best-ever qualifying run in fourth before grabbing a career-best finish in sixth. For GMS Racing, the team had only one top 10 in a full 2017 season.

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