DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The Daytona 500 ended before Michael McDowell took the checkered flag at speed. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano sparked a fiery melee in Turn 3 on the final lap of the Feb. 14 race which sparked NASCAR to have to display the caution before the end.
Now, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 ends in similar fashion. Kurt Busch hooked Daniel Suarez on the backstretch which created a nine car crash in Turn 3 in overtime of Saturday’s night’s regular season finale. Ryan Blaney was in the lead at the time and was scored as the winner for the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Daytona International Speedway.
It was Blaney’s second win in six days as the Team Penske driver arguably enters the postseason as hot as anyone. He was runner-up in the Verizon 200 road course race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway too with having three straight top two results in his No. 12 Ford including five top fives in his last six races run.
Blaney, was pushed to the lead on the final restart by Corey LaJoie which he credits as the winning move. Same as last week’s race at Michigan too. Blaney, was fourth coming to the final restart, but with the top lane being the preferred lane all day, the top three in the running order elected to restart in tow behind each other up top. Blaney, chose the bottom lane and with a good push and perfect circumstances, he prevailed.
“Yeah, the biggest thing is just getting the push, right, just trying to get a good push,” he said. “Corey LaJoie gave me a good push two weeks in a row, gotten really good pushes on restarts, able to win the race, so thanks for that.
“No, it really all started with the 7 giving me he a good push, then trying to hold off the 7 and Kevin and a couple other cars, 17. Awesome win for Bodyarmor, Menards, Advance Auto Parts, Ford. Looking forward to next week.”
His goal this year was to win more than once, now he’s a three time winner this season. See, Blaney had won just one race each year between 2017 through 2020. Now, he’s won three times in 26 tries already.
Chris Buescher lined up on the outside on the restart but didn’t get enough drafting help from behind and faded back. He made a final push in the end and narrowly missed out on that big one but it wasn’t enough in his No. 17 Ford. The Roush Fenway Racing driver did cross the finish line for what was initially his first top five all season and fifth top 10. It wasn’t enough to prevail him to the playoffs though as not only did he not win, his car was disqualified for an illegal part found in post race inspection.
Same for the next three cars behind. Bubba Wallace was moved up to second in his No. 23 Toyota for his second top five this season but second straight in this race.
Ryan Newman was third in his No. 6 Ford in what may be his final Daytona start with Ryan Preece fourth in his No. 37 Chevrolet.
Saturday’s rain delayed NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner, Justin Haley, was a remarkable fifth in his No. 77 Chevrolet.
Ford’s Lap 122 Pit Stop Won Them This Race
Ryan Blaney’s win can be traced back to the Lap 122 pit stop by the Ford camp. See, on superspeedway’s, manufacturers try to pit on opposite laps of each other but doing so with each camp. The Ford’s dropped down pit road for their final time on Lap 122. For some reason, the Chevrolet nor Toyota teams followed suit.
A caution came out on Lap 139 for three Rick Ware Racing cars crashing into each other in Turn 4. That helped the Fords in the sense that they didn’t have to pit and could cycle to the lead. They’d take the top eight spots after and would hold them with Blaney being victorious.
It also put most of their cars in front of the final two crashes and allowed them to take 3 of the top 4 finishing spots.
New Aero Package Was Flawless
NASCAR has been tweaking with the superspeedway aero package a lot over the years. From restrictor plates to tapered spacers to what we have now, they’ve never stopped playing with it in order to help not only keep the show entertaining, but also safer too.
Changes were made in wake of Ryan Newman’s frightening last lap crash of the 2020 Daytona 500. More changes came following Joey Logano’s crash at Talladega this past spring. They adjusted a wicker bill, lowered horsepower and made some more minimal changes in order to hopefully slow the speeds down and keep the cars on the ground as well.
Cars were running at speeds in the high 180’s and we saw no one get airborne on Saturday night. In fact, we only saw four crashes in what was a thrilling show from start to finish.
In a night where no one really knew what to expect, I feel like this package may be the best one yet. The cars could draft well together, could still make good runs but they also could block and hold position without wadding up a bunch of cars behind too.
The drivers say that you could have more in your control with this package and that strategy came into play in the sense that you could tandem draft but you didn’t want to either if you were the lead car because the car behind could push you really far out there which made you a lame duck.
“It was kind of a mix from the old package with tandem to kind of the package we’ve had over the last two years,” said Denny Hamlin. “It was big runs, but you could stay connected.
“The speeds being slower you could just hammer the person in front of you really, really hard and the tires did not lose grip because you were under the tire with the speeds we were running. Very intense as far as I am concerned. Just kind of a log jam there at the end. We gave ourselves a chance. We were running third when the two leaders wrecked and got collected in it. Just some bad luck.”
Race winner Ryan Blaney said this all allows for a lot of blocking.
“These cars drove a little bit differently than the ones before. I feel like you could tandem a little bit more in these cars with this package. Yeah, pretty crazy,” he said.”
“I thought there wasn’t a huge, huge difference. I almost felt like you could tandem a little bit longer. Yeah, I felt like you could stay attached a little bit longer. That was the big thing that kind of stood out to me.
To me, this package worked to perfection in a race that featured 45 lead changes among 15 drivers.
Hamlin/Harvick Go Through Regular Season Winless
When we came to Daytona at this time last year, we all expected the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship to be Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick’s to lose. They had combined to win half of the regular season race (13-for-26) and even won three of the first five playoff races at that.
From Hamlin’s Talladega win last October (31 races ago) until now, neither have visited victory lane. That’s remarkable.
To go from winning 16 of the first 31 races last year to being 0-for-31 since.
Both made the playoffs as wildcard drivers though with Hamlin having 13 top five results. The thing is, he had eight top fives in the first nine races of the season, but only five in the next 17.
Harvick, has 16 top 10’s this season but just six top fives and only one finish better than fourth all year. Can they flip the script this postseason?
Last year, Harvick was the No. 1 seed. This year, he’s the last (No. 16).
Larson Wins Regular Season Championship
Kyle Larson came to the Darlington Raceway on Mothers Day weekend 164 points behind Denny Hamlin in the regular season standings. He heads to the playoffs as the regular season champion. How?
Well, Larson got hot and Hamlin cooled off and both went in extreme opposite directions which allowed Larson to become the fourth different regular season champion in five years.
Hamlin, kicked off 2021 with eight top five finishes in nine races. He was fifth that day in Darlington. Larson, was runner-up which sparked a hot streak for the Hendrick Motorsports driver that allowed him to close the gap rather quickly.
Larson, would finish in the top two six straight races and seven times in an eight race span including 10 top three finishes over the final 15 races.
Hamlin meanwhile, had five top fives in that same span but none of them were better than fourth.
Coming into Saturday night’s race, Larson held nearly a 30 point lead. He was supposed to start on the pole but due to two inspection failures, he had to come from the back. That helped their plan in the sense that they wanted to run in the back and see what Hamlin was going to do.
Hamlin, finished second in Stage 1 to grab nine stage points. Larson was 16th. For the second stage, Larson felt it was time to go. He’d finish fifth and get six stage points in the process. Hamlin, was 15th, which meant that going to the final stage, Hamlin really only gained three points.
Then, Hamlin was caught up in that Lap 156 “Big One” while Larson was stuck in the middle of the final lap crash. They’d finish 14th (Hamlin) and 21st (Larson) meaning that Hamlin gained another 11 points with the bonus for a lap led, but it wasn’t enough.
Larson bested Hamlin by 14 points to claim the regular season crown.
“Yeah, the race went well until the last lap,” Larson said. “We didn’t get any stage points the first time, first stage, and the 11 did. I felt like after thinking about it a little bit more if I could just kind of follow him and stay close to him in the second stage, he wouldn’t gain much on me.
“It actually ended up where I beat him in the second stage. That gave me a little bit more comfort going into the final one. We were able to dodge a couple wrecks. He actually got collected in one of them. Then it was kind of go for the win at that point.
“Just things didn’t work out for me in the green-white-checkered. Ended up getting shuffled back, then getting right in the middle of that wreck. Yeah, bummer that we didn’t get to finish well, but we accomplished the goal going into tonight, which was coming away with the regular season title.
“Got those 15 bonus points. Now we can look forward to the next 10 weeks and hopefully get some more wins.”
Larson, says that there’s not a group of tracks he feels like suit him the best in the playoffs now. He says they have an opportunity to do something special here.
“I mean, I think there’s a lot of good tracks for us,” he said. “I don’t know which ones specifically. I feel like we have a shot to win anywhere right now. That’s encouraging.
“I really just look forward to getting it started next week, kind of getting into the flow of that, racing in the Playoffs against multiple other drivers chasing points and wins.
“Yeah, I feel good about it.”
As to how many teammates will he be fighting for the title come November in Phoenix, should he get there himself? Would it be a chance for a HMS sweep of the Championship 4?
“It would be hard to get all of us in the Final 4 at Phoenix, but it’s not impossible either,” he notes. “We’ve all four been really strong I feel like all season long. It’s been nice to have us all win this year and challenge for many other wins. Yeah, it’s not impossible, but it’s definitely going to be tough. That would be awesome.”
Larson, says that while winning is of importance in the postseason, points racing is big now too. How do you shift that mindset over? He says the good thing about chasing a regular season title, they’ve already been in that mode for the last several weeks.
“I feel like we’ve kind of had that mindset the last month or so already. It’s not been all about just winning. Once points kind of came into the picture of us being able to beat the 11, kind of points racing against him. I think getting into that mindset, that kind of style it takes to not be so go for broke, which I feel like is a lot of what you need. You obviously have to have that go for broke somewhere in your arsenal.
“Yeah, I think a lot of it, you can’t make any big mistakes and take yourself out of it. That’s what we’ve been doing this last month and a half or so. I feel like that’s been good to prep us leading into the Playoffs.”
Reddick Bests Austin Dillon For Final Playoff Spot In Wild Fashion
Daytona served its duty on Saturday night. The final regular season race left us in suspense until the final lap on not only who was going to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400, but who was also going to take the final playoff spot into the 16 driver postseason too.
Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick were the biggest fans of Ryan Blaney at the ending. If they couldn’t win, they needed him to as five of the six cars up front on the final restart were winless on the season. If Blaney could win, it meant that the final spot would come down to the Richard Childress Racing teammates.
Reddick led Dillon by 25 points for that position heading into the night as no one else could points their way in. If no one new behind them won, then the final spot would go to whomever had the most points after 26 races run between Reddick and Dillon.
Dillon, finished sixth in the first stage but was running second with two to go in Stage 1 but made a move to get the win. Unfortunately for him, Denny Hamlin didn’t go with him and he dropped back to finish sixth for five stage points. Reddick, was 21st, scoring zero.
That deficit was now down to 19. For Stage 2, Dillon was second this time to get nine more points. Reddick though was fourth himself with seven points accumulated meaning Dillon had a net gain of seven in stage points.
That put his deficit to 17 going into the final stage.
In that stage, Dillon was caught speeding on pit road on Lap 141. Then, he had a voltage issue and losing power. Luckily for Dillon, a caution came out on Lap 145 and allowed them to change the battery without ever dropping down a lap.
Plus, Reddick was collected in that crash and had smoke billowing out of his No. 8 Chevrolet. They’d be able to fix Reddick’s car, but the door was now open for Dillon to race his way in.
Oddly enough, despite Dillon restarting fourth on the final restart, he was caught up in that last lap crash and would finish 18th. Reddick, some how escaped any damage from the last lap accident and limped his car home in fifth.
He’s in, Dillon’s out.
“There was definitely so much happening there during the race and I didn’t get nervous till Stage 3 there on a restart that I thought was coming, but he did a really good job of matching the move with Chase Elliott going three-wide on the bottom and we lost all the track position that we gained there in Stage 2,” said Reddick. “From that point on we had the cycles and the cautions that came when we got collected in that accident with 15 to go.
“Yeah, that is when the nerves kind of shot up because the car is crashed, we were out of the draft, and not really sure what was going to happen. We caught a caution and fortunately got through that last crash. Even more fortunate than that was that Ryan Blaney was able to win and if you look at the guys from third to myself, if any of those guys win but Blaney, we are having a different conversation.”
At one point, Reddick was 48 points out of Dillon leaving the Coca-Cola 600. Dillon had 56 stage points scored in that span after Charlotte including no top 10’s scored over the final 11 races.
Reddick meanwhile, had 75 stage points and four top 10’s which allowed him to close that gap to his teammate and pass him.
Then, after Kurt Busch’s win in Atlanta, the gap was down to eight. A week later, Reddick was up by five. He’d never look back.
Dillon made a jump the last three weeks scoring 44 stage points including finishes of third, third and sixth in the last three 1st stages and 2nd, 6th and 2nd in the last three 2nd stages. Reddick was 1st, no stage points and no stage points respectively in the same three first stages and 1st, eighth and fourth respectively in the second stages.
He was 21st in Indy and 29th in Michigan but Dillon was only 31st and 36th in those races too.
Reddick is racing for a championship. Dillon’s not.
“It was a little bit of a roller coaster ride. We fought our butts off in the stages. We made some good moves to get points and found ourselves in fourth-place for a green-white-checkered here at Daytona. That’s where we were when we won the Daytona 500, so I was feeling pretty good about it. I don’t know – looking back, I wish I would have been a little more patient and probably stay in the top line. But I had a run and they all kind of boggled getting into (turn) three, so I went with the 17 (Chris Buescher) just to see if we could get all the way to the front. The 42 (Ross Chastain) kind of left us at the line and our night was over there. We were kind of in the middle, had a big run and then the crash happened. We fought hard. The Bass Pro Shop Chevy was very fast. Two weeks in a row we’ve had great cars out of the 3 Team. Just haven’t gotten the finishes we’d like to have, but very thankful that the good Lord took care of us tonight and we get to race at Darlington next week. Unfortunate that we’re not in the Playoffs, but we gave it all we could and fought until the very end.”
The two winners this weekend are arguably the top drivers in their respective series on superspeedway’s right now. Justin Haley won the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Wawa 250 on Saturday afternoon for what was his fourth career win in Xfinity competition. All came at either Daytona or Talladega.
If you count his Cup win here in 2019, that’s all five wins at these tracks.
He also should have won the 2018 Wawa 250 at Daytona before being penalized for passing barely below the out of bounds line in the tri-oval on the final lap. He won the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400, the 2020 and 2021 NXS summer race as well as two races at Talladega too.
He would finish sixth in Saturday night’s ‘400.
For Ryan Blaney, this was his first Daytona win but it was also his third top six in his last four Daytona tries including a runner-up in the 2020 Daytona 500. He also won the 2019 Fall Talladega race to go along with the 2020 Spring Talladega event too.
This was Blaney’s seventh career win with Ford’s seventh win of the season and Blaney leading only seven laps tonight.