Erik Jones held off Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap of a wild Coke Zero Sugar 400 to take his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win. The No. 20 Toyota outlasted a Survivor-type race that had fans asking one simple question for the final NASCAR Overtime.
Who was left?
Just 20 of 40 cars were still running at the end of a Daytona International Speedway demolition derby. Multiple Big Ones, beginning on lap 54 collected all but a handful of cars, leaving multiple contenders sitting inside the garage area. Winner Jones was in one of those wrecks, losing a lap at one point during the race.
As contenders fell down, that left Truex seemingly in control, the No. 78 team positioned for their first restrictor plate victory. But during the final restart, a resurgent Jones was able to push ahead of Truex. He then held off AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne to earn the first MENCS win of his career.
“Today was not a day that I necessarily thought was going to be our day,” Jones said. “I just didn’t. We were laying back and dropping back and at one point, we had to repair quite a bit of damage and went a lap down. I didn’t give up at that point, but thought, OK, we’ve really got to do our best to salvage a solid day.
“But as the race started winding down, we just kind of kept bumping up. We were 15th, then we were 12th, then we were seventh, then we were fourth and then we were second. It kind of kept inching forward, and on the last restart, I was like, we’ve got a legitimate shot at this point.
“It was just one of those days when you don’t think you have a shot to win and you end up winning, the excitement level is just 100 times higher than the days where you have dominated and feel like you should win the race.”
Truex held off challengers for his second runner-up Daytona finish. It was another heartbreaker two-plus years after losing by inches to Denny Hamlin in the Daytona 500.
“I have to get better at the blocking,” he admitted. “It never has been my strong suit. Without question, I struggled a bit seeing the runs coming. Me and my team are trying to figure that out together.”
Allmendinger, Kahne and Chris Buescher rounded out the top-five finishers. Ty Dillon earned his first career top 10 in sixth, followed by Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman, Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman. A “Who’s That” of drivers were 11th, 12th & 13th: Jeffrey Earnhardt, Brendan Gaughan and DJ Kennington.
Those drivers held on in what became a game of survival. At first, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would continue to show his dominance on superspeedways, blowing by pole sitter Chase Elliott and winning a wreck-free first stage.
But for Stenhouse, his eventful night was just beginning… and the crashes dragged along right with it.
On lap 54, Stenhouse, Brad Keselowski and William Byron entered Turn 3 racing for the lead. Byron was leading while Stenhouse was pushing Keselowski and when a car gets pushed at just the tiniest of spots, it spins.
That wreck came at the front of the field, collecting a whopping 26 cars. Contenders like pole sitter Elliott, Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin were all out of the race before they were able to earn stage points.
Keselowski felt rookie Byron caused the wreck by coming down into his line on the backstretch, causing him to lift.
“I made the mistake of lifting instead of just driving through him and that’s my fault,” he said. “I know better than that. I’ve got to wreck more people and then they’ll stop blocking me late and behind like that. We’ll go to Talladega and we’ll wreck everybody that throws a bad block like that.”
When the race went back to green, aggression continued to boil over into wrecks. Stenhouse hooked Kyle Busch into Byron in the middle of Turns 3 and 4. Busch hit the outside wall hard while Byron got turned by Jamie McMurray. The incident would take out Busch, Byron, McMurray and Corey LaJoie, all before the end of stage two.
“You always come to Daytona waiting to crash and figure out when or where, and hope you can walk away from it,” Busch said. “That’s really frustrating and disappointing to have to race these races like that.”
With a majority of the field on the hook or with damage from those two accidents, Stenhouse’s bumper cleared his major competition. The No. 17 Ford won the second stage with ease.
But Lady Luck would finally catch up to last year’s Daytona winner. After green-flag pit stops had almost cycled through, Kyle Larson lost a tire in Turns 3 and 4. As Larson spun, Stenhouse had nowhere to go and ended up also spinning with Larson. The No. 17 would receive minimal damage, continuing on but the loss of track position was costly.
That left the race wide open. Underdogs like Kahne took their turn up front with Cinderella stories like Michael McDowell and Kennington driving inside the top five. At one point, the part-timer Kennington was a potential contender for victory before spinning down the backstretch and causing a caution with 15 laps left.
On the restart, Stenhouse made contact with Aric Almirola in the pack, causing a tire rub that was a ticking time bomb. His car finally gave way on the frontstretch, spinning down the track and into the grass. From this point, Stenhouse couldn’t rebound and he’d finish a disappointing 17th.
Next, there was a wreck that caused NASCAR Overtime and knocked out a number of underdogs. Joey Gase got loose in the entrance of Turn 3, causing McDowell and Almirola to sandwich the wall. McDowell led a career-high 20 laps but would be relegated to 26th in the final rundown.
Then, as the field was coming to the white flag, Clint Bowyer would get hooked by Darrell Wallace Jr. as Bowyer was running fifth. The crash took out Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Wallace, Trevor Bayne and others.
The red flag would be displayed for a total of five minutes and one second, ultimately setting up the second overtime finish.
With the field depleted, the race came down to who could get the best push in the end. Jones took off with the lead, besting Truex and that was all she wrote from there.
“When we got clear of the 78, I knew we were in a pretty good spot because he didn’t have a lot of help after that,” he said. “Everybody had strung out a little bit from what I could see from my seat and watching it back. You know, once we got off Turn 4, I felt like there was — it was highly unlikely unless we had a pretty severe failure that we were going to get passed. That was pretty exciting at that moment and pretty cool to come down and close it out.”
It was the youngster’s first victory in his 57th start and the first in the No. 20 Toyota. Jones took the ride with high expectations after replacing Matt Kenseth but has had an inconsistent season to this point.
“You feel the pressure,” he said. “I definitely feel like this race, this win has lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series now heads to Kentucky Speedway next weekend for the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart. Truex is the defending race winner for the event, slated to go live on NBCSN at 7:30 p.m. ET.
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