The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500…

1. That’s racing

I’m sort of baffled by the outrage over Austin Dillon driving through Aric Almirola — after Almirola admitted he saw Dillon coming and threw a last-ditch block. There’s no sound reason behind the anger here, other than fans can’t stand Dillon and his perceived silver spoon background — while Almirola would have been a likable winner and feel-good story after last year’s broken back and transition to Stewart-Haas Racing.

I get that Dillon irritates fans (he doesn’t care, by the way; Dillon believes in the “as long as they’re making noise” philosophy), but geez. Seriously, folks? Take the emotion out of it for a second.

Dillon had a huge shot of momentum from a Bubba Wallace push when the Almirola block happened, and it was on the last lap of the freaking Daytona 500. So what was Dillon supposed to do, let off the gas and cut Almirola a break?

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him, and not had this Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing,” Dillon said.

But even if he did lift, Dillon probably would have gotten turned by Wallace behind him.

After all, that’s what seemed to happen when Ryan Blaney blocked Chase Elliott in the first Big One (Elliott lost momentum, got loose and spun off Brad Keselowski, starting a pileup). And when Denny Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch in the last Big One, Busch lost his momentum and got turned by the air off Blaney’s nose.

As we saw throughout Speedweeks, superspeedway racing has evolved into a risky, ballsy game of chicken when it comes to blocking. Almirola had no choice but to throw that block — in hopes Dillon would somehow blink — and Dillon had no choice but to drive through him.

Unless he wanted to lose, of course.

“I had such a run,” Dillon said, “and I had to use it.”

2. A star is born

NASCAR got stuck in some political debates last year, which prompted outsiders to once again bring up stereotypes about the sport’s fans.

But the majority of race fans aren’t racist. How do I know? Because Bubba Wallace is quickly becoming one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.

Fans at Daytona gave Wallace a loud cheer before the 500, and his high profile in the media this week (including a feature on ESPN, a six-part docu-series on Facebook and then some air time in front of the largest audience NASCAR has all year) allowed fans to take a closer look at whether they like him or not.

It certainly seems like they do. And it has everything to do with his personality, which is refreshing, energetic, fun, raw and real.

I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?

If Wallace can do anything in the 43 car and is even halfway competitive, it will be massive for NASCAR. His profile only grow if that’s the case.

But Richard Petty Motorsports has a lot of work to do judging by last year’s results, and if Wallace doesn’t run in the top 10, he risks becoming another Clint Bowyer.

Fun guy, hilarious, great personality, people love him, but…

At the tweetup on Sunday, fans emphasized they seek the perfect combination of personality and results. A driver needs both to truly be a superstar.

Those who deliver in both ways are the types of drivers NASCAR needs to succeed. Wallace certainly has the personality; now we’ll see whether he can produce on the track.

3. For Blaney, wait til next year

This really seemed to be the Ryan Blaney 500, especially after so many other contenders wrecked out. It looked like Blaney had the strongest car and could do anything with it. He led 118 laps in playing the typical Keselowski role, a dominating performance on a day when no one else led more than 22 laps.

Blaney was leading a single-file line with 10 laps to go when William Byron spun in his damaged car, which brought out a caution that ultimately cost him the race after the ensuing restart.

“That stunk,” Blaney said of the caution. “That grouped everyone back together. I tried to block as best I could, but it’s just so hard when they’re coming so much faster than you.”

Still, a green-flag finish wouldn’t have guaranteed a Blaney win. He had the best car of those remaining, though that doesn’t mean everyone would have stayed in line. But he’ll always wonder.

“It definitely was going to get tough there, and it was starting to brew up to where people were going to start to go,” he said. “With five to go, it was probably crunch time — and we were five laps away from that.

“But I thought we could control the lead pretty good, and it just didn’t play out that way.”

Ryan Blaney collects himself after climbing from his car following a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

 

4. Logic doesn’t prevail

I don’t know if this will go down as one of the best Daytona 500s ever, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.

With drivers knowing their cars were less stable than in previous years thanks to the new rules package, it seemed running single-file (like in the Clash) would be the smart way to go.

It certainly would have been very boring, but logic dictates that’s what the drivers should have done in order to still be racing at the finish.

Instead, the drivers got all crazy over the end of Stage 1 and took out a bunch of great cars. Then more wild moves finally bit them just after the halfway point.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said of the first incident. “… I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”

I’m sure they weren’t. But I can’t really figure out why. Drivers had privately predicted a single-file race, perhaps even with several groups of six-to-12 car lines spread across the track. Then they would all go hard for the win at the end.

Instead, it seemed like the opposite happened in the first two stages. It was weird. Super entertaining, but weird.

Perhaps the start of a new season left everyone too antsy to use the patience required to make it to the finish, or maybe racers just can’t help themselves from racing hard — even when it’s not necessary at the time.

5. Underdogs shine

Speaking of those who patiently bided their time and made it to the finish, there were some surprise names who had solid results after others wrecked out.

Chris Buescher previously had only one top-10 finish at a restrictor-plate track in nine starts, but he finished fifth on Sunday.

Michael McDowell finished ninth to record his sixth career top-10 finish — five of which have come at Daytona.

Justin Marks had a surprising run in his first career Cup race at Daytona and finished 12th despite being one lap down.

Also, David Gilliland made his first Cup Series start since 2016 — and recorded a 14th-place finish, his first top-15 since the 2015 Daytona 500.

And finally, despite all the drama and questions about whether it could even get the car on the track, BK Racing got a 20th-place finish with Gray Gaulding. Not a bad day for a team that just filed for bankruptcy protection.

Aric Almirola not angry at Austin Dillon despite Daytona 500 collision

Aric Almirola was a half-lap from winning the Daytona 500 in his first race with new team Stewart-Haas Racing — that is, until Austin Dillon turned him while battling for the lead.

So was Almirola pissed at Dillon for driving through him? Was Dillon being too aggressive?

Almirola let out a “Ha!” when I asked, as if that was a ridiculous question.

“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 — just like I was,” Almirola said. “I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try and win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t going to just let him have it.

“I wasn’t going to stay on the bottom and let him rail the outside, so I blocked, and he got to my bumper and pushed. I thought I was still going to be OK, and somehow I got hooked. I’m just devastated.”

Almirola said if it was Lap 5 of the race, “I probably wouldn’t have pulled that block.”

“But it was the last lap of the Daytona 500, and I was doing everything I could to try and win,” he added.

Almirola was still managing to smile because he feels like he’ll have a chance to win other races this season now that he’s with SHR.

Tony Stewart came into the infield care center and gave Almirola a big hug. He told the driver: “The good news is, we have a lot more of this (running well) to look forward to.”

“This is just one race,” Almirola said. “This is might be the biggest race, and this is going to hurt for awhile. But next week, I think we’ll have another shot.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the 2018 Clash at Daytona

Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway…

1. Calm Clash

Well, that was weird. An exhibition race with no points on the line, and most of the field ran single-file as Brad Keselowski led the last half of the race. OK then.

“Who would have thought they’d just run single-file for 30 laps?” said Kevin Harvick, who lost the draft while trying to make a move. “It didn’t all make sense to me.”

As the laps wound down, a few cars tried to take shots at building a low lane to challenge the frontrunners, but it was mostly a failure. They’d just drop to the back if anyone tried anything.

So what happened? According to several drivers, the cars weren’t handling well with the new restrictor-plate rules package, which made it difficult to run side-by-side or three-wide. They actually had to drive the cars — at least more than usual at Daytona — instead of running wide open while playing the typical chess game.

“I know it looks like we were just riding around the top, but we were actually lifting and trying not to run over each other when you get those big runs,” Austin Dillon said.

The new package helped cars suck up much quicker, but they’d hit the invisible air bubble just as hard. Meanwhile, the stability offered by the previous rules package — which made for lap after lap of pack racing as drivers tried to side draft and pick off positions — became a thing of the past.

“They were too much of a handful to race side-by-side and three-wide,” Erik Jones said. “Earlier in the race when we were doing that, I was out of control and just uncomfortable. I had to back out and give everybody some space.”

When a driver would pull out of line, he not only dropped to the back — but actually risked losing the draft altogether. Harvick said he was trying to slow the car in front of him in order to get a run, but he slowed both down that the draft just left them behind.

If a car stays in line, it never loses its momentum. Plus, the cars are running significantly faster than before — Keselowski said he ran a 199 mph lap while leading (not with a run), which was eye-opening.

“I was trying to make moves, but you just have to accept the pack being single-file or you’re going to be at the back of it,” Harvick said.

So that’s it. The drivers wanted to go and were eager to make something happen, but there was no overcoming the momentum deficit with so few cars and a single-file lane up top.

2. Now what?

The big question now is whether the Duels and the Daytona 500 itself will be less than exciting (or whatever term you want to use), as was the case with the Clash.

As Jones noted, the Duels on Thursday night will probably look similar to what fans saw Sunday because it’s an impound race and teams already have their race setups installed — which are close to the setups in their Clash cars.

And the 500? It’s obviously a concern, but Harvick said not to worry yet.

“I’ve seen this a little bit before (in the small field of the Clash),” he said. “It’s just different when you get all the cars out there.”

As for the contenders for the remainder of Speedweeks? Well, it would be a surprise if anyone but a Ford won the 500.

Fords have looked so strong on plate races over the last couple years (they’ve won seven straight plate races!), and they finished 1-2-3-4 in the Clash. What was especially striking was Harvick said his car was comfortable and stable despite losing the draft — which was the opposite of what other drivers were saying about handling.

Logano, too, said his car didn’t feel much of a change from last year after the team made a few adjustments.

“Not as much (change) as I thought it was going to be when I went to sleep last night,” he said.

If that’s the case, the Fords will return to the track Thursday night with a significant edge on the rest of the field.

3. Team orders?

As the Team Penske cars ran 1-2-3 in a line with the laps winding down, you may have wondered to yourself if Ryan Blaney and Logano would just be content to push Keselowski to the win.

No way.

“I don’t know about you guys, but for the last 20 laps, I was in there going crazy waiting for someone to make a move,” Logano said. “I was ready to go.”

Of course Logano and Blaney wanted to win for themselves. It’s just they were in a similar situation as everyone else, realizing they needed help to make something happen.

Blaney eventually tried it and made a move coming to the white flag — but all it did was drop him through the field. That move wasn’t the original plan, but it was perhaps his best option in the moment.

“I feel like I was in a good spot because Joey was behind me, and he would have gone with me for the win no matter where I went,” Blaney said. “I was going to kind of hang out until the lane started to form and then I’d jump out. It just never did.”

Roger Penske and Keselowski agreed if that scenario happened again in the Daytona 500, it would be an every-man-for-himself situation in the final laps (like it was with the Toyotas a few years ago). So there’s little chance all the drivers would have just stayed in line while Keselowski just cruised to a win.

4. Rules are rules

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed below the double yellow line, which is a penalty. You can’t do that.

NASCAR’s rule is it will overlook such a pass if the driver was forced below the line by another driver — but Stenhouse wasn’t.

Stenhouse, his team and a whole mess of people on Twitter argued otherwise, but NASCAR’s call was extremely consistent and fair compared to how officials have called it before.

The 2008 Regan Smith/Tony Stewart incident is the defining moment for this rule. If that wasn’t forcing someone below the yellow line, it clearly must be very obvious for NASCAR to call it.

So you might not like it, but NASCAR made a fair call in this case — which is all anyone should hope for.

Stenhouse had a run coming, but it looked like Busch’s car had already started to move down (Busch said his car got sucked down there and he wasn’t trying to go that low). Could Stenhouse have forced the issue with a wreck? Sure, but what’s the point?

It’s not unlike a driver getting a huge run on the outside and the leader moving up to block. What happens then? If the oncoming driver presses the issue, they’re both in the wall. So most of the time, they back out of it.

Stenhouse tweeted next time he could just turn Busch and wreck the whole field, but he either A) Could have backed out of it or B) If he felt that was impossible given his momentum, he could have given the position back and there would have been no penalty. So it’s not like that was the only option.

5. The new pit stop ballet

NASCAR took away a pit crew member from each team in the offseason, which forced crews to rearrange their choreography. Plus, tire changers now have to all use the same pit gun. There was much talk about how it would look and impact the races — and rightfully so.

But although the stops were significantly slower (FOX said more than four seconds!), it was hardly noticeable.

We probably won’t see the true impact until there’s a “race off pit road” situation at 1.5-mile tracks — where track position really matters. Daytona doesn’t make that big of a difference (although Keselowski did use a two-tire strategy to take the lead).

Overall, though, it just didn’t seem like a big thing. A month from now, we probably won’t even give it a second thought.

NASCAR Media Tour Day 2: Wait, they’re doing what?

Austin Dillon was the first driver to take a seat Tuesday morning on the annual NASCAR Media Tour, and it didn’t take him long to casually break some news.

On the topic of viewing telemetry data from new Richard Childress Racing alliance drivers Kasey Kahne and Bubba Wallace, Dillon said the distribution of information would go further than that.

“Now I can see it from everyone with NASCAR releasing their data,” he said. “The slowest driver can see the fastest driver, what he’s doing with the car — steering, brake, throttle. It’s out there.”

It is?

“So it’ll be big to be able to decipher that information quick,” he continued. “You’re going to be able to see it now, and you’ll be able to see if your car is faster or slower or not as good. I’m excited about that.”

Wait a minute. NASCAR is releasing data to teams about what other drivers are doing with their cars? As in drivers who aren’t on the same team?

Yes, Dillon said. At least that was his understanding.

That was news to the media, along with some of the other drivers.

“I haven’t heard anything about that,” Erik Jones said. “Is that something they’re talking about?”

“That’s brand new to me,” Kurt Busch said.

“Really? That’s interesting,” Matt DiBenedetto said. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that.”

So what’s the truth? Well, NASCAR confirmed later Tuesday morning it will be releasing additional data to the teams this year — but NASCAR emphasized it’s nothing that wasn’t already available publicly through NASCAR.com’s RaceView feature.

That data includes steering inputs, braking, throttle and RPM — not from a GPS, but from the electronic control unit (ECU) that is part of the electronic fuel injection system.

The wrinkle is some teams had apparently figured out how to “scrape” the data from NASCAR.com’s raw feed into their own systems, which they could then use to keep tabs on what other competitors were doing. So as part of the ongoing effort to keep the playing field level, NASCAR decided to just give teams the information instead of having some go through a backdoor method to get it.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends who you ask, because the best teams and drivers obviously wouldn’t want others to have their information.

“That’s entirely not fair,” Kyle Busch said. “I’d rather disconnect my stuff to begin with so nobody gets to see it.”

Even his teammates?

“Absolutely,” Busch said. “I’d much rather not have anybody be able to see anything. Even if I’m behind, I feel like I’m better at being able to catch up rather than just handing my data to somebody and saying, ‘Here it is. Here’s how you do it.’ That’s not good.”

Jones, now Busch’s official teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, was able to see everything Busch (and other Toyota drivers) did last year as part of the alliance with Furniture Row Racing. He said it was “great for me,” but understands why it’s not ideal for the top drivers.

“If I was Kyle or Martin (Truex) or Denny (Hamlin), I would be frustrated guys were able to look at exactly what I was doing and copy it,” Jones said. “Obviously, parity is low right now, which doesn’t create a lot of passing. Guys are super close — and that’s going to continue to just tighten that up.”

Of course, DiBenedetto said a small team like his will take whatever information it can get — though it’s not everything.

“(That data) wouldn’t do much to make up for the large lack of budget and aerodynamics and things like that,” he said. “But any resource you can have at this level, no matter what it is or how small, anything we can get our hands on is going to benefit us for sure.”

Media Tour Day 1: No major rule changes coming to NASCAR this year

Videos from Champions Week in Las Vegas

Here’s a recap of the videos I made from the recent trip to Las Vegas.

Short version of the ridealong with Denny Hamlin:

Long version of the ridealong with Denny Hamlin:

NASCAR tire carrier Paul Swan’s marriage proposal to Monster Energy girl Mariel Lane after the awards ceremony:

12 Questions with Austin Dillon

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing. Dillon got his first career win earlier this season and is 13th in the point standings with two races to go.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say 60/40 working at it compared to natural ability. I really feel like you’ve got to work almost double what you do as far as natural ability, because it only carries you so far. And if you keep working at it, you kind of get the muscle memory right and you start making the right decisions under pressure more than you do just naturally. It’s more of a luck thing when it comes naturally.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

Well, I’ve got all the new guys covered as far as coolness goes. I’m a pretty cool guy — just ask me. (Smiles)

I like being real, having fun with my boys, I just like to have a good time. I feel like I’m a pretty honest guy to say it how it is and I want to make NASCAR better when I leave it. That’s another big part of it: I want to give something back to this sport when I’m done with it.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Definitely just traveling to sponsor appearances. Usually there’s probably one or two every week, just keeping up with those.

And then staying fresh for when you’re asked similar questions throughout the week and you’re just answering the same ones. You’re trying to not get frustrated if you have a week where the same questions are getting answered.

So somebody asks you a question one day about how your season’s going, and the next day it’s like, “How’s your season going” again? That kind of thing?

Yeah, for sure. And if an event happens — like making the playoffs — and you have to do like seven interviews in a row in an hour-and-a-half period or something like that, it’s literally just like I’m repeat. I wish I could get everybody to call in at once and just do one really good interview and that’s where it’s tough, because you’ve got to go through and say the same thing to everybody — because that’s truly the answer. But by the seventh one I’m just dead. I’m like, “I’m OK, the car’s driving good, hopefully we can have a good race.” The first one, I’m pretty witty and fun, but then it gets a little monotonous.

I actually always wonder how you guys do that, because I feel like I’d want to have a recorder I take out and be like, “Here’s what I just told this person,” and just play it, you know?

Exactly, and I think it would be cooler. The ones that I like is when everybody listens in on a conference call, that seems to go pretty well. But when you have to go to different radio stations across the state or a couple of states, it gets pretty bad.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah. I mean, I will sign for anyone. I think the best way to do it for a fan is don’t let me leave the table at the end. If I’m eating, just let me finish and then I’ll sign it. Usually that’s what happens. They’ll like, “Hey, big fan, Austin, can I get an autograph?” “Yes, as soon as I’m done, I’ll come sign.” So that works pretty good, where I’ll come to them if they ask.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

That’s a good question. I think the media could do a better job covering aero advantages you see on other cars, like getting more technical with our sport and finding the differences between cars. Like if you visually see something on a car, putting it out there earlier than what it usually (gets discovered) to help create an even more fair playground.

Then another story is the penalties. There’s no one that keeps tally, I feel like, of minutes of sitting out on pit road (during practice). I wonder who has the most minutes sitting out on pit road this year for being late through tech. And I bet it averages out where the top couple guys are some of the best guys in the sport. So the guys that are sitting on pit road the longest for missing practices or whatever it might be, for rolling around (through inspection) too many times, I bet if you look at that and tallied all those minutes up, it would come out with the pretty good guys at the top.

So it’s actually sort of a good thing because they’re pushing it?

Either that, or it’s telling you that they’re cheating the most to get the most. Is cheating rewarding the guys that are up front?

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

My brother (Ty) about 10 minutes ago. We were talking about fantasy football. We made a trade.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Entertainers on the track, yes. Away from the track, some of them aren’t entertainers. I feel like some are boring. Some are exciting and funny and have personalities, but some just don’t in my opinion. But all of them are entertainers when it comes to being on the track. Some of the most boring guys out of the race car are some of the most exciting in the race car.

What do we have to do to get the boring guys off the track to be more exciting?

I think make them feel comfortable to where if they do mess up or say something wrong, they’re not just shut down instantly from a fan standpoint. You’ve got a lot of fans supporting one, two, three guys and then one guy steps out of his comfort zone that’s not supported by all the fans, (he shouldn’t have to) feel like he’s going to ruin his career due to a fan base booing him.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Man, mine flies all the time. I’ve got to do a better job with that, actually. It’s just when I’m mad, that’s just what happens. I know one thing, if I see the middle finger, I really fly hot in the race car because I want to get to that guy, move him or do whatever I can. But I don’t know, I wish I would just wave more. That would be better.

If you wave, people are like, “That could mean something else.”

Yeah, it could mean something else. And sometimes, I’ll throw the peace sign out the window and I don’t know if that’s just worse than the middle finger, like “See ya, guy.”

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Oh, for sure. I think certain guys you put in your head that have given you a break at certain periods of time. Tony Stewart was one of the best at it. If he was having a bad day and you were coming forward and he knew you were there, he would get out of your way pretty quick. But I’ll tell you what, if you didn’t have that same way of driving style on the way back when he was coming through, he would let you know really quick. So I think I knew in the back of my mind, “OK, he let me go really quick, I need to let him go.”

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I don’t know if this counts, but Donald Trump Jr. sat behind me once. Gary Player, I sat with him at a dinner. I don’t know. I’ve eaten with Dale Jr. — he’s pretty famous.

Man, I’m trying to think of somebody outside the sport who would be really cool. Oh, Jimmy Carter — former President. I ate lunch with him. So that was pretty cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

My (fiancee, Whitney Ward) says compassion. I need to have more compassion, so I’m working on that.

Like just for other people in general or what?

Yeah, I’m kind of black and white on certain situations, so I should be a little better — just a little easier, I guess, on certain people.

12. Last week I interviewed Danica Patrick. She wanted me to ask you: If you could live on Earth forever and eat the steak that’s on Earth and have your current life that’s on Earth and be happy, would you rather do that or would you rather take a risk and go to another planet where it’s potentially way happier? You don’t know what it’s going be, but you’ll be way happier than where you are now. Would you stay in your current Earth situation or go to this other planet?

And I’m happy with the steak where I’m at right now though? But it could just be way better at the other one? The potential is way higher, but it could also be bad.

Correct, yes. That’s what I understood from the question.

Man. I’m not a huge food guy — like food does not make or break me because I can eat about anything. So I would have to know more details when it came to if my fiancee was with me, if my family was gonna be there, if it was just for me. If my family’s still (on Earth) and I’m leaving them, I would stay. I would be eating the same ol’ steak, chilling. But if I could take my whole crew with me, if there’s an opportunity, I’d probably push for the opportunity.

The next interview is going to be with Landon Cassill. Do you have a question I can ask Landon?

If he could bring three sponsors into this sport to make it better, what would they be and why?

Monte Dutton column: Turns Out The Thief Was Dillon

Esteemed racing writer and author Monte Dutton is covering the Coca-Cola 600 for this website. Here’s his final post from the weekend.

By Monte Dutton

When the wrong guy wins, it’s interesting. It’s not exciting. Wrong guy, interesting, beats right guy, boring. It’s similar to the way a flush beats a straight.

What if it’s the wrong guy, once removed? All the more fun for the wee hours.

Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night and Monday morning. He drove No. 3. It’s been a while for No. 3. Talladega in 2000. Cat named Earnhardt.

“It hasn’t sunk in, by no means,” Dillon said.

Later, he added, “To be quite honest with you, we had an argument, full-on, face-to-face, with my grandfather, this week, about the performance of the car.”

Cat named Childress. Richard Childress. Won six championships (out of seven) with the cat named Earnhardt. He’s got a pair of grandsons who like to go fast. One never went faster.

“We’re not down,” Childress said. “We’ve got everything we need to win.”

“We did our job,” Dillon said. “We had a chance to win, and we did what it took to do so. The 600 is a lengthy race, and you can’t afford mistakes. We didn’t make them.”

Martin Truex Jr. dominated the race. He finished third.

“Two out of the past three (600s), we lost it on (fuel) mileage,” said Truex, who was gracious.

Jimmie Johnson was the chief suspect in the impending theft. What he wound up stealing was 17th place, citing first gas and then lack thereof.

Dillon? Dillon? Where’d he come from? The far side of Johnson, that’s where.

It appeared as if the thief in the night with enough gas in the getaway car was Johnson. Johnson’s crew chief is Chad Knaus, Super Genius. For once, Knaus was Wile E. Coyote, not James Bond. Johnson’s Chevy crashed into a canyon floor because his Acme parachute was an anvil.

Okay, Johnson’s Chevy ran out of fuel. Dillon’s didn’t. Who knew Dillon, the Roadrunner, was lurking in the shadows, waiting to go beep-beep?

Truex was supposed to be the Roadrunner. He wasn’t supposed to lose. The Roadrunner is a cartoon. It’s not supposed to be complex. The Coca-Cola 600 wasn’t a whodunit. It was a who-won-it. Truex led 233 of the 400 laps. Last year he led 392 laps. He won that one.

If watching the wrong guy win strikes your fancy, the Coca-Cola 600 was the race for you.

Kyle Busch was so overjoyed to finish second that he threw a tantrum in the media center. After basically daring anyone there to give him an opportunity to bite off their head, he slinked away to a nearby swamp to feed on lizards.

Six words he spat out. “I’m not surprised about anything. Congratulations.”

Then there was a crashing sound.

This was the most valuable race in the regular season. The race drivers were like truckers. They got mileage (especially Dillon). The race had four segments, not three, which, in turn, meant it awarded three sets of bonus points, not two. It’s a step in evolution. Before 2004, all races were created equal. Then playoff races became gold. Now the Coca-Cola 600 is silver, but only by a little.

The night’s first and almost only excitement occurred on the 20th lap, when apparently something approximating a manhole cover, or, more likely, a gong, clanged out from under Jeffrey Earnhardt’s Chevrolet and very nearly brought another, driven by Chase Elliott, to a stop. Brad Keselowski’s Ford struck Elliott’s Chevy, and it wasn’t a tap. One day Elliott may drive a tank, but a stock car can’t withstand such fierce impact.

Later the track went wet for one hour, 39 minutes, 56 seconds.

All those Air Titans were scarcely needed. Truex mopped the track with the rest of the field.

Into all lives, some rain must fall. For the Coke 600, though, it wasn’t in the budget. The thunder rolled, and the lightning struck. Ladies and gentlemen, there is lightning in the area! Just being the longest stock car race in the world wasn’t enough. God was in a whimsical mood.