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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

The Underdog House: Small Teams Star in Chaotic Coke Zero Sugar 400

Think Small

Unlike any other race this year, if you weren’t up front Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, you were on your way to a great night.

So, naturally, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was a race where the underdogs starred. Once many of the fast cars crashed out, most of whom in the lap 55 Big One, the saying that “anyone can win at Daytona” became a stark reality.

And though a small team didn’t turn opportunity into Victory Lane, they were well in the conversation practically from start to finish. A playoff spot on the line, stage points, cash and a first-ever trophy for most of these small teams. And that all comes at Daytona of all places? Wow, what a night.

Top of the Class

He may not have been the top underdog for most of the race but it ended with AJ Allmendinger at the top for the Frontstrech “Underdog of the Race”. The JTG Daugherty racer paired with teammate Chris Buescher on the final overtime restart to stay in the top five on the white flag.

And shocking the universe down the backstretch on the last lap, leaving teammate Buescher dry on the outside lane, he powered by behind Martin Truex Jr. to score third place at the line. The run was Allmendinger’s first top five of 2018 and first since the 2017 Daytona 500.

Teammate Buescher was a big part of Erik Jones‘ first win after pushing the No. 20 clear past Truex on the last lap. The push, however, slowed the No. 37 to where Allmendinger moved down low, ending Buescher’s chances at career win No. 2.

Still, Buescher came home fifth, his second straight Daytona top five.

“It felt like a full-moon Friday night race,” Buescher said. “We ended up up front much sooner than we thought. I’m glad to be up there with my teammate to at least be in position to do something. I’m just glad we’re here.”

Wedged in between the JTG guys was Kasey Kahne. This underdog ran his best race with Leavine Family Racing, suffering only minor damage from the early Big One before pouncing to the race lead with 22 laps to go.

From there, Kahne led 17 laps, the most ever for LFR in a single race before finishing fourth. The finish may have been disappointing for Kahne, who contended for what would’ve been the team’s debut win and perhaps their only shot for the playoffs.

But either way, a second straight July top five at Daytona was good news for LFR. He was one of many drivers who needed a healthy boost to cap off the first half of 2018. This was not only his first top five, but first top 15 all year.

Similarly, Ty Dillon was a comer-and-goer all night and finished up front in his Germain Racing No. 13. After suffering from fuel-pickup issues on multiple restarts, Dillon was also involved in the Big One. giving the team plenty to work on throughout the night.

But it ended strong with a sixth-place finish, the team’s first top since 2015. And even more special, it was Dillon’s first top 10 ever in the Cup Series in his fifth season of competition.

And we’re not done yet in the top-10 finishers thanks to Matt DiBenedetto, who earned his first top-10 run since last year’s Brickyard 400 in seventh place. The No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford gave a hearty push to Kahne on the final restart, leading to a shake-up up front for the lead.

His damaged car couldn’t quite keep up with Truex up ahead, however, he stayed in the draft to earn his fourth career top-10 finish.

“Superspeedways are our time to shine,” DiBenedetto said. “A small operation everybody knows we’re 15 people total. I shoved the heck out of the bottom lane. I stalled out on the backstretch because every corner on the racecar has some form of damage [laughs].

“One day everyone will see me in Victory Lane. I’m not stopping here.”

Continuing the largest “Top of the Class” section yet, Jeffrey Earnhardt earned a career-best 11th-place finish in Premium Motorsports’ No. 7. The run was only his second lead-lap finish and it’s only right that it came at Daytona.

Brendan Gaughan overcame multiple wrecks to finish 12th for Beard Motorsports with DJ Kennington, Darrell Wallace Jr. and David Ragan completing the top 15.

Ray Black Jr. ran his first Cup race of 2018 (fourth of his career) and finished 16th for Rick Ware Racing. That was their second straight top 20 at Daytona and a career-high for Black.

JJ Yeley ran 18th in his first start for BK Racing in three years, earning the team their third straight top 20 at Daytona.

Underdogs of the Race So Far in 2018:

Daytona: Darrell Wallace Jr. (second)
Atlanta: Kasey Kahne (21st)
Las Vegas: Chris Buescher (15th)
ISM: AJ Allmendinger (21st)
Auto Club: Darrell Wallace Jr. (20th)
Martinsville: AJ Allmendinger (seventh)
Texas: Darrell Wallace Jr. (eighth)
Bristol: David Ragan (12th)
Richmond: Matt DiBenedetto (16th)
Talladega: David Ragan (sixth)
Dover: Kasey Kahne (17th)
Kansas: David Ragan (13th)
All-Star Race: AJ Allmendinger (eighth)
Charlotte: Darrell Wallace Jr. (16th)
Pocono: David Ragan (16th)
Michigan: AJ Allmendinger (17th)
Sonoma: Chis Buescher (12th)
Chicagoland: Michael McDowell (21st)
Daytona: AJ Allmendinger (third)

Looking for More

And finally, we look a those who weren’t so fortunate in Daytona Beach this weekend. It starts with Ross Chastain, who “lived out a childhood dream” by running his first Cup race at Daytona. And with a new sponsor onboard his Premium No. 15, the night was full of potential for the rookie.

Staying out of trouble for most of the night, a late crash involving Clint Bowyer and others swallowed up Chastain on the frontstretch. The crash was only his second DNF of 2018 and ended him 21st on the night. Still, he second-best finish of the year.

It took no time (literally) for Landon Cassill to suffer some problem Saturday night, as the No. 99 needed a new battery at the drop of the green flag. Behind from the start, Cassill was clean for the remainder of the night and came home 24th.

StarCom Racing teammate Joey Gase ran in the top 10 at one point in the final stage and was aiming for a career-high finish in the team’s No. 00 Chevrolet. However, a tap by Michael McDowell turned the XFINITY Series regular into the pack and out of the race on lap 161.

Speaking of McDowell, the Front Row Motorsports driver ran arguably the best race of his Cup career, qualifying eighth and jumping to second in stage one. From there, he finished second in stage two and grabbed the lead at the start of the final stage for 20 total laps.

The late crash ended a what-could’ve-been night for McDowell in 26th spot while Corey Lajoie was caught in the Big One, ending his night 31st for TriStar Motorsports.

Otherdogs

The XFINITY Series was also in action at Daytona, running their 105-lapper Friday night.

And it was a nutty one. Justin Haley missed out on Victory Lane after passing below the yellow line, denying GMS Racing their second straight plate win this year. Good news for them? Their driver Spencer Gallagher is back next weekend in Kentucky.

The penalty advanced Kaz Grala to his second top five of 2018 and first for Fury Race Cars. Timmy Hill earned his first top-10 in six years from the seventh spot. That run was also the very first top 10 for Carl Long’s MBM Motorsports team in their 152nd race.

Say Anything

‪7th place y’all!!!‬

A post shared by Timmy Hill (@timmyhillracer) on

About Zach Catanzareti

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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