Jordan Bianchi from SBNation.com returns for his fifth appearance on the podcast to help me break down Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s win at Daytona International Speedway and discuss the wreckfest that was the Coke Zero 400.
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.
Restrictor-plate races are so freaking hard to predict, which makes them fun to watch but agonizing when there’s money on the line.
So for those playing DraftKings this weekend — and there’s a $350,000 total payout contest, so that includes me — a bit of extra strategy is needed. I hopped on the phone with DraftKings’ Pearce Dietrich on Friday morning to go over some lineup ideas for the race.
“What I’m going to suggest is going to make people throw up a little bit,” Dietrich said. “Don’t even worry about the drivers or track history. If you look at the past leaderboards, you just pick guys from the back. It sounds crazy, stupid, ridiculous, but the best starting position on the optimal lineup in the Daytona 500 was 26th.
“You’ve got to take the guys at the back. It happens at every plate race. But no one wants to do it.”
Dietrich is right: It’s not exactly appetizing, but the best bet is to rely heavily on place differential. DraftKings scoring is plus or minus one point for every position gained, and laps led (0.25 points) and fast laps (0.5 points) just aren’t going to matter as much at Daytona. So it’s banking on drivers who qualify poorly but end up surviving the wrecks and finishing well.
The best possible lineup in the Daytona 500 was Ryan Blaney, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Michael Waltrip, Brendan Gaughan and Kasey Kahne. At last summer’s Daytona race, it was Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Trevor Bayne.
Those lineups involved leaving lots of salary cap money on the table ($10,000 for the 500), but it doesn’t matter. Dietrich said to resist the urge to take drivers who start in the top half of the field.
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy, I’m picking Denny Hamlin because he’s good at the plate tracks,'” Dietrich said. “But that’s not going to win you $50,000.”
That’s why my lineup for Daytona is Landon Cassill, Ty Dillon, David Ragan, Elliott Sadler, Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Whitt — all of whom start 25th or worse. And even that might be a little too high in the lineup.
My lineup of Daytona drivers was $11,900 under the salary cap — which seems nuts, but that’s supposedly the right call.
“Even when people read this, it’s still going to be hard to leave money on the table,” Dietrich said. “But the facts are there. This is how you win. Do this for just one week only and go back to the normal strategy next week.”
I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission. Disclosure No. 2: I might be America’s worst daily fantasy player.
Last race’s results: Played $8 MEGA Beast and finished 9,600th out of 47,000; won $12.
Season results: $38 wagered, $49 won in 12 contests.
This week’s contest: $9 Firecracker ($350,000 total payout).
In Episode 6 of the Untitled Jeff Gluck Podcast, SBNation.com’s Jordan Bianchi returns to help me break down the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying. Plus, the debut of a new segment called “Three Dumb Questions” (around the 22-minute mark) featuring Courtney Force!
Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis of the race through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. First up: The Clash at Daytona.
1. The two best plate racers in the event crashed on the last lap
When the white flag flew, it looked like Denny Hamlin — who swept last year’s Clash and Daytona 500 — would edge Brad Keselowski for the win, barring something crazy happening.
Well, something crazy happened.
Keselowski got a huge run (which doesn’t happen that often with this restrictor plate aero package) and Hamlin went down to defend, but it was too late. Keselowski was already there, and the cars made contact.
Hamlin told MRN his attempted block was ill-timed, and Keselowski seemed relatively cool about the incident.
“Well, it is the Clash and not the 500,” he said on pit road.
But then Keselowski’s jaw clenched and the muscles in his face tightened.
“I guarantee he knows — and everyone else who was watching today — that I’m going to make that move again,” Keselowski said. “And you better move out or you’ll end up wrecked.”
A few moments later, he said it again: “I know all the other drivers are back watching it today, and they know not to make that block on me again.”
Your move, everyone else.
2. Something is up with Hendrick cars in Turn 4 at Daytona
OK, what’s going on here? Jimmie Johnson twice spun in Turn 4, which continued a pattern of Hendrick Motorsports cars having trouble in that turn over the past year (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun out of Turn 4 last year).
After coming out of the care center, Johnson said he didn’t know — and, perhaps more telling, that the team had been so unconcerned about it that no one had discussed it prior to the race.
They certainly will be talking about it now. Johnson said he noticed Elliott looked loose in that turn as well.
“The sun certainly sits on that edge of the track a little harder than anywhere else,” Johnson said. “We’ll take some notes and learn from those mistakes and applied that to the 500.”
3. Alex Bowman is a beast
With each opportunity he gets — and there aren’t that many on his schedule for 2017 — Bowman shows he deserves a chance to run a full Cup season in a good car.
No one wanted to help him during the Clash, and the other drivers treated him like a leper at times. At one point, it looked like Joey Logano might go with him — and then Logano went with the Joe Gibbs Racing cars again and Bowman fell all the way to the back of the field.
Bowman won the pole and almost won the race at Phoenix last year, then basically willed himself to a podium finish in the Clash. This guy will drive a great car some day and, at 23, he has time on his side.
4. Joey Logano is an underrated plate racer
Let’s not get too carried away here, because Logano wasn’t going to win the race until the leaders hit each other on the last lap.
But Logano has won three plate races in the last two seasons (2015 Daytona 500 and the Talladega fall race twice in a row), and now adds the Clash to his collection. When is he going to start getting mentioned alongside Keselowski, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the best of the best on plate tracks? (I’m asking myself that question, by the way.)
Combined with Keselowski the puppet master, you’d better believe the Team Penske cars will bring a large threat to the JGR contingent next week.
5. Danica Patrick gets a good result
I’ll have to go back and watch the replay to see how Patrick ended up with a fourth-place finish, but she’ll certainly take any positive momentum she can get these days.
Her performance on the track has been below average compared to her teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing for a couple years now, and she hasn’t seemed like the restrictor-plate threat she was when she first emerged in the series.
Plus, there’s been that whole Nature’s Bakery lawsuit and the scramble to find a replacement sponsor just a month before the season.
So while a fourth doesn’t count for the official records, it’s a boost of momentum.