This past Sunday, the 65th running of the Daytona 500 was held at Daytona International Speedway. The Great American Race, as it is known by some, marks the beginning of the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season schedule every year. Generally, the largest field of entrants of any race all year compete in the “Super Bowl of stock car racing,” with big names such as Nitro Circus pioneer Travis Pastrana, open-wheel legend Conor Daly and freshly unretired seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson all vying for a chance at winning the biggest race of the year.
Pre-race, 75 years of NASCAR history were honored through an augmented reality presentation on the track surface that allowed for cars from every era to complete a lap around the famous circuit. An opening address from some of NASCAR’s greatest followed, and a flyover from the F-16 Thunderbirds concluded the pre-race festivities as the drivers took to the track.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson qualified first and second respectively, setting an early tone for the evening ahead. The winners of the two Duel races from earlier in the week at the speedway, Aric Almirola and Joey Logano, qualified third and fourth for their efforts. Last year’s winner, Austin Cindric, found himself starting in seventh.
The first stage of the 200-lap spectacle went surprisingly smooth as there were no unscheduled cautions until deep into the second stage. As a result of the clean racing, Brad Keselowski was able to show fans he’s still got it even at his age and secured an initial stage victory.
Stage two brought with it the first caution of the race when Tyler Reddick was sent into the wall courtesy of Kevin Harvick’s front bumper, effectively knocking the driver of the Monster Energy No. 45 car out of the race before the midway point.
Penske driver Ryan Blaney also seemed to get caught up in the chaos, as he spun into the wall after getting loose and dealt with front-end damage for the final portion of the day. Blaney’s car ran into even more issues in stage three when his front right tire fell off of the rim and onto the track, pushing the No. 12 car further and further back in the pack.
Ross Chastain, who famously rode the wall around Martinsville last season to secure a spot in the next playoff round, crossed the line in first at the end of stage two just ahead of polesitter Alex Bowman.
With just 19 laps to go in the race and final stage, the first big wreck of the afternoon unfolded. Exiting turn one and moving into two Ryan Preece got nicked by Michael McDowell before spinning down the track, bouncing off of Johnson’s No. 84 car and slamming into the train of cars running the high line. Favorites Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick were effectively taken out by the wreck, opening the door for a shock victor.
Newly-acquired Richard Childress driver Kyle Busch and the No. 8 car managed to push into the lead with just three laps to go, but his effort proved to be for naught. Farther back in the pack, Daniel Suarez got loose. The No. 99 car spun into the infield, which called for a caution and forced Busch to cede any run or positioning advantage he had held going into a pivotal point in the race.
Thanks to the timing of the crash, the race would now be completed by way of a “green-white-checkered” finish. One lap of green flag racing, one lap of the white flag, and then the checkered to follow, simple enough.
On the restart, Busch quickly fell from his top spot, while the field rocked side to side as they jockeyed for positions going into turn three. At the entrance of the turn, Austin Dillon got loose and caused what NASCAR fans refer to as “The Big One.”
Dillon’s car spun with Hendrick driver William Byron before their cars slid up the track and back into traffic, blocking a way out for the second half of the pack. Since the group was not able to complete a full lap before the caution, the green-white-checkered finish was restarted, this time with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leading the pack with the Cottonelle No. 47 car inching ahead at the time of caution.
Off the second restart, Stenhouse Jr. paired up with Logano and Larson paired up with Christopher Bell to head the pack of cars vying for first. Stenhouse Jr. crossed the line for the white flag far ahead of the pack, but Logano and Busch had been able to generate a massive run up high.
On the low side, AJ Allmendinger and his No. 16 car were able to get into the back of Bell’s car, and finally managed to reconnect with Stenhouse Jr. going into turn one. Just as the field entered the banked corner, Almirola clipped Pastrana, setting off a chain reaction that sent Larson headfirst into the wall at speeds close to 180 mph. Stage one winner Keselowski was wrapped up in the carnage, as were Bubba Wallace and Blaney.
Though the caution lights did not activate until seconds after the wreck, the field froze at the moment the flag was waived and the signal was given from NASCAR. Just as the lights were activating, Stenhouse Jr. managed to pull the nose of his car ahead of Logano’s above him in the turn. After a short replay review, crew chief Mike Kelley began jumping for joy in the pit box as he celebrated the first Daytona 500 victory in Stenhouse Jr’s career.
When the No. 47 car finally made it back to the finish line, Stenhouse Jr. radioed to his team that he couldn’t do a burnout because “the thing ran out of gas.” Second-place finisher Logano was dejected that they weren’t able to race it clean all the way back to the line, but didn’t seem overly upset, probably because he already has a Daytona 500 victory to his name from 2015.
Either way, this upcoming Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Ca is sure to be a golden opportunity for multiple drivers to have statement performances in the wake of the longest-recorded Daytona 500 in track history. The race will be the last time the track is run as-is, with a reconfiguration set to alter the layout of the circuit following the contest.