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’.”
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.
Way different race tonight than usual. Combo of the short stages & softer Goodyear tire has made the track super easy to drive= wreckfest
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) July 2, 2017
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.