There were sparks and smoke, billowing up and out of Daytona International Speedway, taking with them any semblance of normalcy from an always irregular race.
So typically Daytona.
As NASCAR's most prestigious track has become known for, Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400 was a complete and utter mess. The Big One, twice over — and one driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., controversially behind both of them. Huge slabs of car ripped from their frames and sprayed all over the field, taking out nearly half the field in the process. There was collision after collision, and just when the smoke cleared (literally), it all began over again.
But once the wreckage was done, the shootout began. Roughly 20 laps to go, and it was an all-out battle to the end. Martin Truex Jr. led, and then Kasey Kahne took the lead right away from him, with Kevin Harvick in the mix all along.
A late caution with 11 laps to go (from a Stenhouse wreck, of course) only upped the intensity in an already high-stakes contest, and then another with three laps to go magnified it again.
And then, once the race hit overtime, finally there was clarity, albeit in the form of a third Big One: another wreck took out Harvick and any number of other competitors, leaving a battle between Truex and Erik Jones for the win. And with a final burst on the outside, Jones swooped in front of Truex and won his first-ever Cup Series race.
Stage 1: Not a single crash in the first section of the race, and not a ton of lead changes, either. Chase Elliott started on the pole but eventually gave up the lead to a charging Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who dominated for the rest of the stage. Elliott would finish the stage in fifth.
Stage 2: The Big One finally came on Lap 55, thrashing 20 cars in the field, including many of the top contenders. Charlotte native William Byron, who was leading at the time, escaped, as did Kyle Busch and Stenhouse, but only for a moment. Another wreck on the subsequent restart, where Stenhouse got into Kyle Busch, doomed the 18 and Byron, plus Jamie McMurray. Stenhouse would eventually win the second stage as well.
Stage 3: It was a back-and-forth battle for the lead the first half of the stage, and then suddenly Kyle Larson and Stenhouse got tangled in a wreck about midway through. Multiple late cautions sent the race to a green-white-checkered fight to the finish, and when it finally got to double overtime, Erik Jones out-dueled Truex for his first Cup win.
Three who mattered
Erik Jones: A final burst on the outside wall gave him enough clearance to pass Truex in the second overtime, giving Jones his first career Cup Series victory and a berth in the NASCAR playoffs.
Martin Truex Jr.: After the first major wreck, Truex made the strategic decision to fall to the back of the pack and let things work themselves out ahead of him. That paid off well, as he was able to charge from behind and eventually come away with a second-place finish.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse was arguably the catalyst behind both major wrecks in Stage 2, and he also won his first two stages of the season. Unfortunately for him, karma came back and collected him in a wreck midway through the third stage, ending his chances for a win.
▪ Lots of neat pre-race military tributes, including pulling all drivers off the track after one pace lap, but none better than the rousing starting call — "Start your engines!" — delivered by retired U.S. Army Colonel Gregory Gadson.
▪ Among the names that were caught in The Big One on Lap 55, when Brad Keselowski got loose into the wall and wrecked most of the field, were: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Bubba Wallace, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson. Twenty cars in total sustained some sort of damage.
▪ A bit of history being made Saturday night, as NASCAR Drive for Diversity alumni Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary became the first two women to work on a Cup Series pit crew (for Ray Black Jr.'s team). Daniels, a former point guard at Norfolk State, is also the first female African-American to compete in a NASCAR national series event.
They said it
“.. animals. We're done.” – Kurt Busch, after being involved in The Big One during Stage 2.