Sunday, July 02, 2017

COMMENTARY: Random Thoughts After A Long Day At Daytona International Speedway

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is suddenly becoming a restrictor plate master. The Roush Fenway Racing driver won Saturday night’s 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway, just weeks after winning his first career at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season. “I kept my Talladega (winning) car and told them to build a new one,” said Stenhouse in Victory Lane. “They built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. I’ve been coming here since 2008… and it’s cool to put it in Victory Lane and get our second win this year. This validates what we did at Talladega.” Stenhouse was winless in his first 157 MENCS races, but now has two checkered flags in his last eight starts, cementing a spot in the 2017 playoffs.

There was no shortage of ruffled feathers Saturday night, as drivers traded paint and blocked aggressively, from start to finish. Runner-up Clint Bowyer said aggression and risk-taking are a requirement for anyone who expects to run up front at Daytona. "You've got to block hard, cut people off and push hard," he said. "You've got to stick your nose in there where it doesn't belong; all things that you know are capable of disaster. 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."

Brendan Gaughan made his third MENCS start of the season Saturday night, claiming a stellar, seventh-place finish for an underfunded, undermanned Beard Motorsports organization that had not completed since Talledega in early May. Gaughan survived two bouts with the wall with 69 laps remaining, then drove his No. 75 Beard Oil Chevrolet back through the field to claim his second Top-12 result of the campaign.

Anxious times for Logano 
Joey Logano's encumbered win at Richmond is shaping up to be the biggest penalty in the history of NASCAR. With six playoff spots currently available to drivers based on points, Logano is on the outside, looking in. A crash-marred 35th-place finish Saturday night left the Team Penske driver three points out of a coveted playoff spot, trailing fellow non-winners Kyle Busch, Chase Elliot, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Boyer and Matt Kenseth. If he fails to win again in the next nine weeks -– and a driver below him in the standings goes to Victory Lane -- Logano could easily find himself watching the 2017 playoffs from the sidelines.

People who grouse that NASCAR should start July races in Daytona Beach at 11 AM to avoid those ever-present 3 PM thunderstorms ignore the fact that it rained at noon Saturday. You just can't predict what Mother Nature is going to do.

Wallace and Blaney: Good Times
Seeing the sport's most iconic entries -- Richard Petty's No. 43 and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 -- run side-by-side for the lead at Daytona was worth the price of admission, all by itself. Best buddies Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney were likely beaming like Cheshire cats, at least until Blaney succumbed to the competitive nature that plagues all racers and hung Wallace out to dry with a testosterone-rich move that earned him the top spot just a few laps later. Perfect.

Joe Gibbs Racing's 2017 winless streak becomes more incomprehensible with every passing week.

At one point within sight of the checkered flag Saturday night, 16 of the top 18 drivers were chasing their first win of the 2017 campaign. Only Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., had cracked Victory Lane already this season, and Stenhouse ultimately claimed the checkered flag.

Seeing David Ragan contend for the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway no longer qualifies as a surprise. 

Dillon was strong at Daytona
Rookies Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Corey LaJoie all contended strongly for the win Saturday night, only to discover a harsh reality about restrictor plate racing. Nobody drafts with rookies when the chips are down.

Dillon correctly refused to second-guess the late-race move that dropped him from second to 16th in the finishing order. "I'm kicking myself because the finish doesn't show what we are capable of," he said, after pulling out of line in a bid to take the lead and drawing absolutely no drafting partners. "But I would be more disappointed just sitting there waiting 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 to the front." 

LaJoie's 11th-place finish was by far the best of his rookie MENCS season, after a trying freshman campaign aboard Ron Devine's No. 23 BK Racing Toyota. Prior to Saturday, the third-generation racer's best showings had been a pair of 24th-place finishes at Daytona and Bristol.

The lunatic conspiracy theorists who pointed to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Daytona pole as proof of NASCAR's manipulation of events were predictably silent when the sport's perennial most popular driver failed to win Saturday. Earnhardt is now 25th in the championship standings, winless in 17 races this season and unlikely to qualify for the playoffs in his final run as a full-time driver. If the sanctioning body is really rigging races, they are colossally bad at it.

One unexpected byproduct of Stenhouse's victory? Seeing Danica Patrick smile; a sight that becomes more and more rare with every passing week.

Kahne (5) had another rough night
Kasey Kahne's luckless season continued at Daytona. After running at the front of the pack throughout the night and contending for the win in the late going, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was swept up in a late-race melee and finished 18th. Rumors continued to swirl surrounding his status at HMS, and Saturday night's result will do little to quiet the whispers.

 Michael McDowell will win a MENCS race one day. And when he does, the entire population of the NASCAR garage will smile. Except for Bowyer, who will almost certainly finish second.

Fans who bemoaned Saturday's record 14 caution flags somehow had no complaints with the thrilling, three and four-wide action that produced them. Crashes are a byproduct of intense, competitive racing. You can't have one without the other.

And finally, while we're on the topic, can anyone dispute that NASCAR's new stage racing format has interjected a whole new level of excitement to the first two-thirds of race events? When is the last time you saw drivers go four wide in an attempt to lead Lap 40 of a 160-lap race? I had my misgivings when the new system was announced, but those misgivings were long ago put to bed. 


  1. Well said. I think 22 will be good and JGR will win 4 of last 9. Appreciate your long hours Saturday. You help make the sport great Dave.

  2. Will Stenhouse be fined for jumping on the roof of his car ????

  3. Good points all around.

    By now no one can deny the segment format with bonus points has incentivized going for the lead, perhaps more than expected (the Firecracker 400 saw the most lead changes - 33 - since 2011). And that's only good.

    Darrell Wallace's run was especially good considering how poorly he qualified (31st); when he was drafting upward again before the Larson mess I thought he'd get to Blaney, push him to the lead, and then pass him.

    Seeing Petty's 43, the Wood Brothers (I almost said David Pearson) 21, and a slew of darkhorses battling for the win is exactly what NASCAR needs more of.

    JGR's lack of wins is incomprehensible on one hand, but is also on the other showcasing the lack of depth in Toyota's program - having just two teams (JGR and Barney Visser) really isn't enough; a third and perhaps fourth team will give Toyota more depth.

    I knew the cynics would come out when Junior won the pole and the problem isn't Junior, it's that NASCAR has brought such cynicism onto itself over the years - this race helps defray some of the cynicism, and it will take longer before it truly goes away.

  4. In regards to your "JGR's lack of..." comment, I do not agree. They just need to sit down and figure out what the main differences from last year to this year are! I mean last year Toyota won 16 of 36 Cup races while also dominating the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series, not going to happen in Cup this year! What did they do from the end of last year to now? Is it only the switch to the 2018 mode? I for one do not think so! Are they writing this year off as an experiment by fielding the 18's a year early? I mean what else could it be to only have 3 Cup wins 18 races into the current year (all Martin) and the All Star win (Kyle)? There is a reason for their fall from performance dominance from last year and it is not Ford's stepping up their game efforts either but, if JGR and Toyota want to use that as an excuse, so be it! However, for the life of me, I can't help but believe that somebody somewhere within JGR and/or Toyota have the answers, too bad they don't have what it takes to share those answers! Here's to 2018!