Rick Hendrick says he had Alex Bowman in mind all along

One intriguing news nugget to come out of Alex Bowman’s ascension to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car is the team signed him to a three-year deal last October.

But Rick Hendrick said Sunday morning in a news conference that the contract came with no promises of a job other than his current position: Driving the Chevrolet simulator and testing in the Chevy wheel force car on behalf of the team.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, and we were very careful not to guarantee him anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions — sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to be the next up.”

It was interesting to hear Hendrick say he was pretty much looking to Bowman all along if everything lined up. The Hall of Fame team owner said Bowman was “in the back of our mind for whatever opportunity we had.”

“So it wasn’t much of a decision at all,” he said. “Alex was the guy.”

That doesn’t mean Bowman was the only driver considered. Hendrick was specifically asked about Matt Kenseth — who is available — and said, “I love Matt Kenseth.”

But he said the two had spoken in the past and mutually agreed that “sometimes things just don’t line up at the right times.”

As for Bowman, he just had to be ultra patient — which included turning down “solid opportunities” for this season with other teams.

“There was nothing set in stone,” he said. “It was a big leap of faith.”

Why was he willing to do that? Bowman said it’s because he grew up as a Jeff Gordon fan and wanted to drive for Hendrick his entire life. That was always the dream.

Plus, he said, even being a simulator driver for Hendrick was better than running 35th every week — as he did during his first years in the Cup Series.

“To get the opportunity to stay this year in whatever capacity, I was very happy to take that,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen from there. … I took a chance with it, and I’m very glad it all worked out. “

Social Spotlight with Tiff Daniels

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their social media usage. Up next: Tiff Daniels, media relations representative for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 team.

You run an account that is giving updates on a driver both before and during the race, and a lot of fans are depending on this account. They’re eager for information. How do you decide what updates to send out and what to leave off?

So with Dale obviously, almost any content, people wanna see, right? The more Dale, the better for our fanbase. However, there are those moments that I certainly wouldn’t want to intrude on with him on the track. So I’m mainly giving them a little bit of an insider perspective, but still (sticking to) things that would be fairly obvious to anyone walking by. It just happens to be that I’m with him at all of these appearances and meet-and-greets that he does.

And then during practice session or the race specifically, I can listen to what he says on the public radio the same way anyone else can and kind of try and give an overview of what may be going on without getting into specific things he says about what the car may be doing.

So if he gives some kind of very specific feedback on, “Feels like we’re loose in, tight in the middle, loose off,” but then goes into more detail specifically about what they might be doing with springs or shocks, I’m not gonna put that out there. But I’ll put the general concept of what he may be dealing with in the car and same goes during the race, just so people following along kind of have an idea of what issues the team might be trying to overcome during practice or the race. And then just general updates on where he’s running and what’s going on — and obviously throw in some pictures into that, too, so they can feel like they’re there.

So essentially it’s stuff that’s publicly available. It sounds like you’re saying if you’re behind the scenes somewhere, it can be construed as a private moment, that’s not something you’re going to throw up on the feed.

Right. So if it’s something that happens inside the hauler and he’s joking around with Greg (Ives) and the team guys, that’s not a picture I’m gonna take and put out there, because they don’t want to have to filter themselves when they’re in a situation that should be considered private. And so you start affecting their communication if you get too involved in showing things behind the scenes that maybe should be kept private, because it’s an interaction between him and someone he’s close to or talking to that he doesn’t want to necessarily push out there.

And with Dale, he pushes out so much himself that if there’s something that he wants to tell you about that he did that’s cool, he’s gonna put it out there anyway. I don’t need to be the one to do that.

If fans of a sports team are tweeting during the game, they’re tagging the team and saying, “This is awesome,” or “This is terrible.” In NASCAR, every car is sort of a sports team and you have a whole nation of fans to answer to. So are you scrolling through the replies during a race and seeing what people are saying, or do you have to shut that off for yourself?

A little bit of both. Sometimes it’s just fun to read the replies, so I’ll scroll through and look. Other times, if there’s a lot going on, I may not have time to look through all the replies anyway. Sometimes I’ll look through them and see if anybody has a question that I can help answer. I don’t usually get involved when somebody says, “Oh, you guys are doing terrible right now,” or, “This is great, we’re so happy.” Those are great; we love to see all the fan reactions, but that wouldn’t necessarily be something that needs a response from me.

But if someone asked during a practice session, “Have you guys switched over to qualifying trim yet?” that would be maybe something I can answer. So every now and then I’ll interact. But for the most part, I kind of feel like now that Dale’s so active, that’s something that he enjoys doing and he’ll pick the questions that he wants to answer and those fans he wants to interact with. And they’d rather that interaction come from him anyway than from me, so I just kind of watch to see what people are saying more for my personal entertainment.

What happens when people get out of hand? Do you just have to ignore it and filter it out and say, “Oh, they’re just venting?” Do you ever use the block button, or is that a big no-no because it might be a fan?

I inherited this Twitter account from the girl who did PR before me, and I know that she had used the block button for a couple people, and it was mainly when people started personally attacking her about something that would have to do with updates — which is kind of crazy anyway, like we’re just the PR reps. What do I have to do with anything?

So I’ve never blocked anyone since I’ve been running it. I will mute people every now and then, especially if I see the same person who’s just using a bunch of cuss words and every post is so ugly that I don’t even want to read it. But I don’t usually block people because I figure my job is to provide the updates — so if people want to see them, they can follow us. If not, they can unfollow.

I often ask people working in the sport how they got to this point in order to give advice to people. I don’t feel like I can do this for you, because you took such an unconventional route. (Daniels is a former Late Model driver who was also an engineer for Chip Ganassi Racing.) It’s not something where you can just be like, “I recommend you start out driving a car, and becoming an engineer, and then going into media relations.” So you’ve touched so many different aspects of the sport.

I will tell you a quick story. So when I first started doing social media in the sport and I’d just switched over to the marketing side, I was working for (marketing agency) GMR on the Lowe’s Racing accounts and I was running the @lowesracing Twitter handle at the track. It was the first time they had sent somebody to the track every week to cover social, so I was around the team a lot more and we were just sending out a lot more updates than what they were used to seeing.

Well, during a race, I sent out some kind of update that was a little too specific, I guess, for Chad (Knaus’s) liking. I think Keith Rodden saw it somehow, and so I got called into Chad’s office the next week — and keep in mind I had not been there in very long. But actually, I get along great with Chad (Tiff’s brother Cliff Daniels is an engineer on the 48 team) and did even then. He was like, “So listen, you maybe understand too much and we’re gonna need you to kind of dilute what you put out there a little bit. These are the kinds of things that we want and we’re OK with, and these are the kinds of things we don’t.” Well, OK, good to know. (Laughs)

That’s pretty funny, because I’m sure there’s a lot of people who come from outside the sport and they have a lot of catching up to do. But here they are telling you, “Hey, dumb it down a little bit. Pretend you don’t know as much as you know.”

Right. And then you get the fans that actually really follow it closely and they want that specific information or they’ll be listening on the radio, because you can tune in from home or anywhere to the radio communications and pick Dale’s channel. They’ll be like, “That’s not exactly what he said — he said this.” I know. I know what he said, that’s just not what I’m allowed to post.

Let’s get into your background a little bit. You obviously started as a driver and you ran some K&N East races. I was looking at some of the tracks you ran, and you even ran Dover, which must be so weird. Everybody else in the media and PR room have only worked in the sport in those roles. But you’re like, “I drove here.” That has to be kind of strange in some ways.

It is a little bit different. I think the only four tracks on the (Cup) circuit I’ve raced are Loudon, Dover, Bristol  and Watkins Glen — which that was crazy.

The first time I came back to those tracks, it was different. Now I would probably have more of the some attitude as any other PR rep, you know: “We’re just here to do our jobs,” and I’m not even thinking about what’s going on out on the track because I’m not plugged into that part of it anymore.

But yeah, it was different at first and then certainly interesting to see after the drivers made a run what comments they would have to say about somewhere. It’s like, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about with that line.”

That’s so funny to me. And it makes me wonder: Do you ever look at the young drivers in the sport (who she raced with) and your competitive juices get flowing? Like do you think, “Maybe I could have beaten you at some point?”

There are definitely times when that can cross your mind. I would say that happens a lot less now than when I first stopped driving and was still coming to the track just working.

But we still like to go out to a go-kart track like GoPro Motorplex and just mix it up. A lot of current drivers will come out there, especially the younger guys. And it would be guys we grew up racing against anyway, and we’ll all have fun and beat and bang with each other. So that’s how I get (the competition urge) out now, and then staying competitive in other ways like triathlon or running. It keeps you kind of from going crazy thinking like, “If this person made it, maybe I could have.”

But I’m so happy where I am now and I feel like this is the right place. So when I look at some of the pressure Dale has on him, for example, when he’s doing stuff, that’s a tough job and not everybody realizes it. So I can certainly appreciate the job those guys do and the work everybody has to put in to get to where they are. Even if people’s parents have money, they still didn’t just end up here without putting in any work. So you’ve gotta kind of appreciate that everybody’s put some effort into it to get here in the first place.

So why was marketing and PR and social media a better fit for you than some of the engineering stuff that you first did when you left driving?

I was actually still driving while I was engineering (at Ganassi) and so maybe that was part of it. I had always been hands-on with my own race cars, and so I felt like from the school part of it, engineering was as close as I could get to that hands-on part and still get an education, and then it would help me with my driving. And it certainly did all those things.

But I was a shop engineer, and when I first started at Ganassi, it was still when NASCAR allowed open testing. So you were gone all the time at the racetrack so it still felt a little more hands-on. And once that went away, it was a big transition to CAD modeling and stimulator work and much more computer-intense, and that really wasn’t the part of it that I enjoyed.

I missed the people, getting out and talking to everybody, and the business side of the sport had always interested me. So just through some of the connections I had met from being in the sport and working in it, it was actually a pretty easy transition over (to marketing and PR), believe it or not.

What’s something that people might not realize when they’re seeing your tweets? What’s something they don’t realize about what goes into your job from afar that you have discovered since you got it?

If it takes us awhile to tweet after something happens (on the track), we have to make sure that what we’re putting out there is exactly right — because I know that’s gonna get picked up by people. So if we think something happened to the car and that’s why we’re coming to pit road, well I need to make 100% sure that after they’ve looked at it, that’s what the answer is before I send something out.

So if it seems like it’s a delay, it’s not because we hate it or we’re distracted and just didn’t feel like giving out updates — we were just making sure what happened.

And if you’re making a trip to the care center, you’re not worried about Twitter. Your primary job is to get to the car and get to the driver, get over to the care center and make sure everything’s good from that standpoint before you even switch back over to Twitter.

I would say I mainly tweet during the weekends, so I think people forget maybe how much work mainly goes into the weekend before we ever get here. Really, once we get to the weekend, that’s the easier part of our job. All of the intense planning happens back at the shop before we ever get here.

That’s so interesting, because there’s an entire job where someone could be a social media manager, but that’s just one element of your job. You’re with Dale everywhere he’s going, and you have to get him from place to place to place for all of these appearances. What percent of your job would you say is social media compared to the whole picture?

I’d say for my job, it’s maybe five percent. It’s not something that I spend any time thinking about. When we’re here on the race weekend, I’ll update, but it’s more of a service that we try to provide to the fans than being important to the actual media relations part of our role, I guess.

And so really, if you think about it, the time that I’ve spent tweeting is so small compared to everything else, and especially the way our accounts are structured, anything that I would really want to push out from a PR standpoint is already being pushed out either by the Team Hendrick account in general or Dale himself or our sponsors. So it’s not like I have to have that platform to be able to get out what we’re doing from a PR sense.

So it really is kind of more of a, “Here’s what’s going on if you’re not here, and here’s an easy way to find what Dale’s doing.” But it’s not so much like the crux of what my job entails.

News Analysis: Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. in No. 88 car

What happened: After nearly three months of speculation, we now know who Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement will be in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car next year: Alex Bowman. Earnhardt sponsors Nationwide (19 races) and Axalta (increasing from 13 to 15 races) will back the team for most of the season.

What it means: Bowman, who had received endorsements from both Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, has now made one of the most unlikely career comebacks in memory. Despite being just 24 years old, Bowman’s chances of making a career in NASCAR appeared to be slim after he was fired by Tommy Baldwin Racing just a month before last season’s Daytona 500. But he ran well with limited opportunities for JR Motorsports and then as Earnhardt’s substitute in the 88, nearly winning last fall’s Phoenix race. He remained a valuable member of Hendrick’s organization this season by continuing to drive the Chevy simulator and help with setups, which strengthened his bond with the team. It also means the most prized seat of Silly Season has been taken.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Although Bowman made the most sense for this position, whoever replaced Earnhardt was going to be pretty big news no matter what. It’s also somewhat surprising and significant Hendrick was able to convince its sponsors to back an unproven driver — three top-10 finishes in 81 Cup starts — after being associated with NASCAR’s biggest stars (Axalta was with Jeff Gordon before Earnhardt).

Three questions: Now that Axalta is sticking with the 88, does that mean there’s less of a reason to rush Axalta-sponsored Xfinity Series rookie William Byron into Cup next season? How long will Bowman get to prove himself if he doesn’t produce results? Can Bowman convince some of Earnhardt’s fans to stay with the 88 and make himself a star driver in the process?

Thoughts on Amy Earnhardt’s Twitter explanation

By now, you’ve probably seen Amy Earnhardt’s tweet about why she doesn’t want husband Dale Earnhardt Jr. to run The Clash exhibition race next year.

If you missed it, here it is:

 

I sort of cringed when I first read this, because it seemed like some idiots on Twitter probably wouldn’t handle this very well. Then I read the replies and — yep. Some positive responses, but also some ugly ones that were just totally unnecessary.

It was the kind of personal tweet that’s like the Bat Signal for douchebags.

Honestly, Amy didn’t owe anyone that kind of explanation or peek into how the decision was made. I fear this may put an uncomfortable spotlight on her in terms of fans placing blame for why Dale Jr. won’t be out there risking more head-knocks for their entertainment.

But she’s absolutely right, of course.

Think about it: Dale Jr. got seriously injured — enough to the point where his vision was impacted for months and he was in a really bad place mentally — and Amy was there every single day of what had to be some very dark times. She pushed him to keep going with his exercises (mental and physical) in hopes of seeing the person she loves simply return to normal again.

So after going through all that, Dale Jr. decided to race one more season in order to go out on his own terms — and Amy gave her blessing. That’s a pretty strong level of support from a spouse, and a selfless one at that.

I assume it’s quite a sacrifice to be willing to watch your loved one put themselves at risk when you know the consequences all too well. And don’t give me the, “Well, she knew what she signed up for when she married a race car driver.” No, not in terms of the concussion effects. I bet seeing that would change anyone’s outlook on racing.

If Earnhardt is able to get through this season without another concussion, that would be quite fortunate and he should walk away thankful for his health and a fine career. So it’s no wonder then, when asked whether she would endorse Dale Jr. putting himself in a high-risk situation for no good reason, she said: Nah.

Seriously, what would running The Clash prove? That he’s good at plate racing? Duh. That he loves racing and wants to get back in a car? OK, cool — take a few months off and go run a Truck race at Martinsville, dude.

I don’t blame Amy one bit for her “decision.” It’s the right one. I just worry about the potential backlash from this call being on her shoulders in such a public way.

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Mixed bag for Gibbs

So Joe Gibbs Racing is back in victory lane for the first time since Texas last fall, which was Carl Edwards’ final career win.

While that’s great for Denny Hamlin, you’ll have to forgive teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch if they didn’t leave the track with a smile on their faces.

Busch sped twice on pit road to take him out of contention and now hasn’t won in a year (his last win was Indianapolis, which is next on the schedule). That seems crazy, because Busch is third in the standings and “he’s had a chance to win maybe eight times” (as Gibbs put it); yet he’s winless.

All the Xfinity wins in the world don’t make up for something that you just know has to be eating away at the ultra-competitive Busch.

Then there’s Kenseth. After official word of him getting the boot from JGR was released earlier in the week, his chance to win for the first time in a year went away thanks to bad strategy. Kenseth had passed Martin Truex Jr. with fresher tires, but then only took two tires on the final pit stop — while everyone else behind him took four, costing him the race.

Kenseth said the move had worked in the past, which may have led crew chief Jason Ratcliff down the wrong path.

“I just couldn’t hang on with two tires,” Kenseth said. “Typically here you can get away with that — we won in the spring doing that (last year). Four tires just made big charges today all day long. When we were the only one without lefts, I knew we were probably in big trouble.”

Gibbs made a beeline for Kenseth’s car to pat him on the back after the race, but that probably wasn’t much consolation after what would have been a sweet victory for a 45-year-old free agent.

Alas, it was Hamlin celebrating instead.

2. Joe Low

After the race, I asked Joey Logano if he knew what went wrong. I was referring to the part that broke — the one that took 33 laps to repair in the garage and resulted in a 37th-place finish — but he had to ask for clarification.

“Which part?” he said. “The (being) slow part or the car that broke?”

Yeah, it seems Logano has a lot of problems right now.

With another disappointing result, Logano is 52 points behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot with seven races remaining.

His hopes of contending for a title are not looking so good, which is fairly shocking considering how strong the No. 22 has been in recent years. I doubt many people picked Logano to miss the playoffs, but it’s trending that direction.

“We might have to win now,” he said. “It’s a pretty big hit. We’re in trouble. We’ve got to get going.”

Logano reminded reporters the team has been on the outside before and executed to advance. But that was in the playoffs — and during a time when the team was running much better.

Right now, Logano just isn’t getting very good cars.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep faith in each other — and we’ve got to make our cars faster, because we’re just slow,” he said. “It’s plain and simple and blunt as can be: We’re slow, and we’ve got to get faster.”

To make matters worse, NASCAR confiscated a part from Logano’s car after he went to the garage. A decision will be made on that during further inspection this week, although the team certainly can’t afford any more of a points penalty if it hopes to make the playoffs without a victory.

3. Hail Dale

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out on old tires while the entire field pitted, which put him in the lead on a restart with 35 laps to go.

As you might guess, it didn’t work. He plummeted through the running order and ended up 18th.

But given his points position (21st), Earnhardt and his team had to try something. They have to win, not go for top-10s.

So I asked Earnhardt: Was that strategy call pretty much a Hail Mary?

“It was like a Hail Mary when you’re down 14,” he said with a chuckle.

Earnhardt said he and crew chief Greg Ives were hoping some others would stay out behind them and provide a buffer, but even that probably would have been a longshot call.

If they didn’t try it, though?

“We’d have finished 10th at best,” Earnhardt said. “Tenth to 18th is no big deal. We’ve got to try to win. That wasn’t an opportune risk to take, but we’re going to have to take them every week — no matter how (much of) a longshot it is.”

4. TrackBite leaves a mark

I’ll acknowledge the VHT/PJ1 TrackBite/sticky goo storyline was overhyped this weekend, and that made some fans cranky on Twitter.

Nobody likes hearing about the same thing over and over, after all. Any angle being hammered by the media seems to annoy people, no matter what the topic is.

But the TrackBite really was worthy of discussion, because it changed the race. So even though it wore off after awhile, NASCAR should keep pushing forward with experimenting again at future tracks.

“It hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the PJ1 that they put on the track,” Kyle Larson said. “So for sure, I think NASCAR should look at doing it at other racetracks.”

What kind of tracks? While Larson said it should be done at places where slower speeds are run in the corners, Hamlin said he could envision it working on repaved tracks like Kentucky and Texas — provided it’s placed on the high line, not the normal groove.

“NASCAR is easing into it,” Hamlin said. “I think it created a multi-lane racetrack we hadn’t seen here in awhile.”

The bottom line (excuse the pun) is this: Drivers are in favor of the experiment, so expect to see it used again in future races.

5. Meme-able Moment

One thing about racing at New Hampshire is there are rarely any classic races. And I’m thinking Sunday’s probably isn’t going to qualify as a memorable one years from now, either.

But Hamlin’s last two wins have produced a couple moments that will be talked about for awhile.

In 2012, you’ll recall Hamlin made his guarantee before the Chase race — and came through, complete with a Babe Ruth swing during the celebration.

And now: Lobster Phobia.

Who knew Hamlin was so sketched out about lobsters? I guess anyone who has eaten a seafood dinner with him is aware, because he said he can’t sit next to someone who is chowing down on lobster.

But seeing him scamper away from the giant lobster when crew chief Mike Wheeler approached? Pretty funny.

Dan Gelston of the Associated Press asked Hamlin what he would do with the lobster now (since it’s a reward for the winner).

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” he said. “I’ve seen it and touched it for the last time. As far as I’m concerned, they need to put it back in the water and let it live.”

Sometimes when the races aren’t great, at least we have these kind of meme-able moments that make NASCAR fun.

At Kentucky, Dale Earnhardt Jr. focused on running better — not retirement

By Aaron Bearden

With the busiest daily schedule of any driver in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. already had a difficult time juggling his responsibilities before this year.

It’s no surprise, then, that finding the time to enjoy his retirement tour has proven difficult.

“You don’t balance it very well,” Earnhardt said during a media availability Friday at Kentucky Speedway. “You know, I just spent three hours practicing today, never once thought about my retirement or this being my last year. I was thinking about how in the hell to get that car to go a little faster. Nothing’s came easy today.

“On days like today, you could tell me I have five more years of this and I wouldn’t know any better. It feels just like any other race, any other practice, because you just get in there and you get competitive.”

The only reprieve for Earnhardt come as he’s away from the track, when time slows down.

“I think that during the week things aren’t quite as tense or there is a little more ease of mind knowing there is a definite end point,” Earnhardt said. “So during the week I think I’m a little more relaxed and able to not stay so wound up like I used to be. Man, you get to the race track and you can’t help it.”

Earnhardt came into this season hopeful he could find a new level of calm at the racetrack, but the pressure of a difficult season to date has proven too great to overcome.

Things appeared poised to start off well for the Kannapolis, N.C. native. Fresh off of a marriage to longtime girlfriend Amy Earnhardt, the 42-year-old rolled off the truck fast at Daytona International Speedway, earning a front-row starting position and leading laps during the Daytona 500. But a mid-race spin from Kyle Busch brought his Daytona dreams to an early end.

In many ways, the storylines from that race have continued throughout the season for Earnhardt. He has shown bursts of speed, even contending throughout the day at Texas Motor Speedway before settling for a fifth-place result.

However, most glimpses of hope have been snuffed out by mid-race disappointment.

There’ve been crashes – four of which have led to DNFs thus far. Earnhardt has had pit road penalties, restart difficulties and even a rare engine failure at Pocono Raceway. In other races, he and crew chief Greg Ives have simply struggled to find the correct balance.

In what may be his final trip to Daytona, Earnhardt surged to the pole and overcame an early crash only to be taken out by a similar accident as the laps wound down.

The result of Earnhardt’s unexpected struggles is a mountain to the playoffs that may prove too steep to climb. He currently sits 22nd in the series standings, with no obvious chances at a victory between this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway and the beginning of the playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway.

As the poor results stack up, Earnhardt admitted he’s slumped back into old form.

“I told myself when I had that little time out of the car that I was going to come back, and I was just going to enjoy it,” Earnhardt said. “I was going to be this great guy, so much fun to be around, and not so hard on everybody.

“But you can’t help it. It’s midseason, and I’m back to midseason form with my attitude. You can’t help it when you want to do well, and I want to do as well this weekend as I did at this track six years ago. It’s no more, no less. If you’re going to come here and do the work, put all that effort in there, you might as well try your best.”

Given his position and the standings and eagerness to please his fans, Earnhardt is likely to maintain his current stress until the end of the season, or at least until he manages a trip to victory lane. He already admits to feeling extra pressure in his final Daytona start.

“I think at Daytona there was an urgency, you know, because I think it’s an easier race to win for me than it is here,” Earnhardt said. “Or I think that I go in there knowing what I need to do to win. I felt like I was very aggressive in the race and having a lot of fun and my car was amazing and all I needed to do was to be right there at the end and we didn’t get to do that.

“Do I think that we don’t have any more chances? I think we can show up somewhere and get the job done. But it’s just not going to come as easy as it might have come at Daytona. And it’s going to be some work.”

Aaron Bearden typically writes for KickinTheTires.net. He is freelancing for JeffGluck.com this weekend. You can follow him at @AaronBearden93 on Twitter.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway…

1. Stenhouse, repeated

As the field lined up for the overtime restart on Saturday night, only one driver in the top nine already had a win this season. So surely, there was going to be a new winner and throw yet another wrinkle into this year’s unpredictable playoff picture.

Nooooope! That one previous winner in the top nine — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — used a run on the bottom to blow past David Ragan as the No. 38 car left the door open, then sailed through what was a relatively calm final lap (at least compared to the rest of the race).

Stenhouse has apparently gotten pretty good at this plate racing thing, which is weird to say. As recently as the first stage of the Talladega race, Stenhouse looked like a weapon. Then he ended up winning that race.

And Talladega wasn’t a fluke, because he led four different times at Daytona before securing his second career victory and second straight plate win.

Yes, Saturday was definitely a race of survival where the best cars were taken out. But you can’t use that as an argument to take anything away from Stenhouse, because when it was Big Boy Time, he put himself in position to win and executed in the end. Again.

“He’s learned a lot,” runner-up Clint Bowyer said. “He’s become a good plate racer. I remember when he came in, he was a little bit chaotic, but he’s not now. He’s got it figured out, and he’s won two of them.”

2. What might have been

Stenhouse was a nice story because he hasn’t won very much, but his presence in victory lane oddly felt like a letdown because of all the potential new winners late in the race.

Ragan or Michael McDowell would have been major stories for NASCAR, with underdog teams launching themselves into the playoffs at a to-be-determined star driver’s expense.

Or a Bowyer win would have triggered a major victory party that would have rolled on until the sun came up — and it would have been good for NASCAR fans to see him win again.

Or maybe the dawn of the new Young Guns could take another step with an unexpected victor. Rookies Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez had shots to win and ultimately got shuffled back, as did Bubba Wallace (how huge would that have been for NASCAR to have an exciting young talent win in the No. 43 car on July 4th weekend?).

Anyway, you get the point. But one reason it didn’t happen is because the inexperienced drivers made moves that either didn’t work or were incorrect.

Take Dillon, for example. Dillon sought out Bowyer for a conversation after the race on pit road because he was unsure if he did the right thing by pulling out of line to try and go for the win (no one went with him and he got shuffled back to 16th).

Could he have done anything different? Ultimately, Bowyer told him there was no right answer.

“I’m kicking myself, because the finish doesn’t show what we’re capable of,” Dillon said. “But I think I’d be more disappointed just sitting there riding and not making something happen. I’m a go-getter. My personality might have gotten us a bad finish, but it also got us up toward the front.”

Suarez got stuck in the bottom lane on the last two restarts and called it “bad luck.” But there was also an element of inexperience that played a role.

“I’m still learning, so I don’t really know how aggressive you need to be to win these races,” he told me. “So maybe I have to push a little bit harder.”

Ragan, of course, has plenty of plate experience and just didn’t realize Stenhouse had that big of a run coming on the bottom (he was more concerned with trying to protect the top). He was disappointed, of course, but it won’t be the worst thing he’s experienced.

“Hey, I lost a Daytona 500 down here,” he said. “Losing a Coke Zero 400 — that ain’t nothin’.”

3. Wreckfest!

The wild race included 14 cautions, which is a record for the summer race and the second-most of any Daytona race ever — including all of the Daytona 500s except for 2011 (16 cautions). That’s saying a lot, considering there were 100 fewer miles for something to happen.

Of course, two of those cautions were for stages. But that’s still 12 cautions, and for all the chaos over the years, there have only been double-digit cautions at Daytona 10 times in 141 races here.

What happened? Well, Brad Keselowski tweeted a theory. He said it had something to do with a softer tire brought by Goodyear.

It certainly had an unusual feel, even for a plate race. Aggression really seemed to pay off in a big way (look at McDowell, who drew drivers’ ire with his moves but ended up with a career-best fourth-place finish).

“You’ve got to block hard, you’ve got to cut people off, you’ve got to push hard, you’ve got to stick your nose in there where it doesn’t belong — all the things that you know are capable of disaster,” Bowyer said. “But if you don’t, the next guy is going to, and nine times out of 10, it works. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

4. Dammit, Dale

Beat-up cars can end up winning plate races depending on the circumstances, so when Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from two laps down and got himself back into the top 10, I was starting to wonder if we were witnessing an Earnhardt Miracle.

But that thought didn’t last long, since Kevin Harvick had a flat tire and spun in front of Earnhardt. That’s a shame, since Earnhardt fans were really craving a win and felt Daytona might have been their driver’s last, best chance to do so before the playoffs.

So now what? Well, there are nine races left for Earnhardt to win and make the playoffs (it’s not happening on points). In theory, he’s got a shot at places like Pocono and Michigan, where he’s run well and won before. But time is starting to run out, and it’s a very real possibility fans won’t get to see Earnhardt get that feel-good victory like Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon had in their final seasons.

That shows two things: First, it’s a reminder of how hard it is to win any race in NASCAR (which should give us more of an appreciation for those who win often). Second, that should permanently put to rest any dumb conspiracy theories of NASCAR being rigged — because you know execs would love nothing more to have Earnhardt as part of the playoffs.

5. What’s the point?

Earnhardt isn’t the only one with playoff worries. Joey Logano’s encumbered win looms bigger and bigger every week.

There have been 10 different winners with non-penalized wins, which leaves six playoff spots open. Those currently belong to Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth. Logano, who finished 35th after crashing, is currently out by three points.

Logano will probably rally points-wise, but if one more new driver wins who is below him in the standings — say AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen, for example — Logano might actually miss the playoffs. That seems inconceivable given how good that team is, but it’s possible.

Of course, Logano could put all this to rest sometime in the next few weeks with a win, but it’s certainly an interesting development to watch — particularly because he’s 12th in the standings, and you don’t typically see drivers that high up miss the playoffs.