Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. overcame other driver’s mistakes and heartbreaks to become the fifth repeat winner of 2017 after a late overtime pass. Dale Jr. finishes 32nd after a crash on lap 107 in his final Daytona start.
The once success story known as Chevrolet at the restrictor plate tracks has become a distant memory as its top drivers have been heartbroken left and right since 2015.
It’s now Ford’s playground, winning seven out of the last eight races including Saturday when Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. captured his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Stenhouse, Jr. was second behind David Ragan until Ragan moved to the high line to block Ty Dillon, giving Stenhouse, Jr. the momentum to pass Ragan entering turn three in overtime.
Stenhouse, Jr. held off Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Michael McDowell (first career top-5) and Ryan Newman to secure his playoff spot, becoming the fifth repeat winner this season.
In an interview, Stenhouse, Jr. was surprised Ragan moved to block Ty Dillon instead of staying in the low line.
“It’s tough out there, I left the bottom open for Ty and I thought I gave the race away,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one. They’ve built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast.”
Stenhouse, Jr. said he was enthusiastic about winning the July race at Daytona.
“We won the Firecracker 400 man, that’s awesome,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “I’ve been coming down here since 2008 (as a driver). Came here in 2006 one time with Bobby Hamilton, Jr. and it’s cool we put the car in victory lane and got our second win this year.”
Stenhouse, Jr.’s became the third driver (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brad Keselowski at Talladega I and Daytona II in 2015 and 2016 respectively) in three years to win back-to-back plate tracks and improved his points position from 17th to 16th overall.
It was all but smiles for several top championship contenders including its top two drivers in the standings, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex, Jr.
Both drivers were involved in the first of several multi-car collisions on lap 72 after Kyle Busch lost control in turn one. The accident ended Truex, Jr.’s night and finished 34th.
Joey Logano and Austin Dillon were also eliminated after the wreck and finished behind Truex, Jr., losing more ground on Larson in the championship.
Larson spun and cut a tire but continued the fight until lap 154 when he took a wild ride.
Entering turn four, Larson was running second behind race leader Ty until Larson wiggled and was tapped by Stenhouse, Jr., careening Larson into the wall and went airborne.
Larson’s car landed on the ground as Ryan Blaney hit him hard shortly thereafter.
The hitting continued for Larson as Matt Kenseth hit him at the start-finish line until his car finally came to a stop on pit road.
Larson exited out of his car unhurt but finished in 29th for only his second DNF of the season.
Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch was also collected in the lap 154 accident after getting hit from behind by Darrell Wallace, Jr., sending Kurt into the wall. The wreck crumpled his front end, resulting his third DNF this season as his woes continued in 2017.
Larson said he holds himself accountable for the crash after Ragan tried to pass him while protecting the high line behind Ty.
“I saw David ducked me inside so I was going to leave him room, I just squeezed Ricky and wrecked myself,” Larson said. “I hate that I tore up a lot of cars. I was pretty loose at that point and hanging on but was hoping to clear for the lead. Once David got inside me, I was just trying to leave him room. The way the air works, I felt it pushed me out a little bit but by that point I was already too high into Ricky so I caused that one.”
It was the second time Larson went airborne at Daytona. During the final lap of the Xfinity Series race in 2013, Larson’s car got air and hit the fence, ripping both ends of the car.
Larson walked away immediately after the wreckage unscathed and no fans were fatally injured.
Despite Larson’s wreck, he still gained points over Truex, Jr. and now leads by 18 points.
One driver missing in the battle for the victory was pole sitter and 17-time Daytona winner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who competed for the last time at the “World Center of Racing.”
Anything but a win would be heartbreak and may hurt his playoff aspirations.
The heartbreak came on lap 107.
Kevin Harvick’s car wiggled at the exit of turn one and collected Dale Jr., ending both driver’s day with Dale Jr. finishing 32nd.
The chance of putting the Earnhardt name in victory lane for the 52nd time and giving Junior Nation, the ideal storybook ending was over.
Dale Jr. said he had no room to avoid Harvick who had a flat tire.
“We were drafting right up back to the front. I think Kevin had a flat and just had nowhere to go,” Dale Jr. said. “(Before the accident) it was fun, we had a pretty strong car.”
Before the accident, Dale Jr. had overcome a two-lap deficit after hitting the turn one wall on lap 52.
It didn’t bring a caution but four quick cautions later, Dale Jr. was back in contention for the win until being taken out.
Dale Jr. said he tried to avoid causing a big wreck after he felt his right front tire was going down.
“We brush the wall a couple of laps earlier and I thought everything was okay. Then I came into the tri-oval and had a right front going down and it was trying to spin out,” Dale Jr. said. “I was trying to lift and really nothing I could do because there’s so many guys behind me. We go into turn one and hit the wall but the guys worked on the car and got our laps back.”
Dale Jr. said he hoped the fun continued and contended for the win that would help his playoff aspirations.
“I was about to have more fun, get back in there and mix it up and then that happened with Kevin,” Dale Jr. said. “It was a wild night and I didn’t anticipate much action and this torn up sheet metal…I wish we could’ve had a great finish, if not a win. We were working up in there and having a good time being aggressive and wearing out the side of the racecar.”
After his fifth DNF of the season, Dale Jr. reflected on the mass support he’s received the past weekend as his #Appreci88ion Tour kicked off Saturday.
“I didn’t expect all that attention. My phone was buzzing in all day long with social media going crazy and everyone talking about this being my last Daytona race. I hope every weekend it ain’t like this as far as that goes,” Dale Jr. said. “The attention and reaction from the fans makes me feel great and hopefully we’re able to turn that around and back on them the rest of the season and thank them for everything they’ve done.”
Dale Jr. will look for a turnaround at the season’s halfway mark, Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky July 8. Brad Keselowski has won three times including last year’s race.
Dale Jr. has a pole and two top-five finishes with fourth in 2012 being his best effort.