To say Saturday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Cole Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway was dramatic is putting it mildly.
In a restrictor plate race that saw two multi-car crashes known as the “Big One” it was Erik Jones who survived to take the win.
Jones led only one lap, the final one on the second of two green white checkered flag finishes, and held off reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. for his first win.
Those two crashes left only 18 of the 40 cars running at the end, and hurt feelings that will most likely carry over to the rest of the season.
The first crash erupted on lap 54 when Brad Keselowski was spun after contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. A total of 25 cars were swept up with several, including Keselowski done for the night.
“Ricky was doing the best he could to give me a good push and had a great run to take the lead and the car in front of me just threw a late, bad block,” Keselowski said, blaming then-leader William Byron for causing the crash. “I made the mistake of lifting instead of just driving through him and that’s my fault. I know better than that. I’ve got to wreck more people and then they’ll stop blocking me late and behind like that. That’s my fault. I’ll take the credit for my team and we’ll go to Talladega and we’ll wreck everybody that throws a bad block like that.”
Stenhouse made no friends among the rest of the competitors. The defending champion of this race was aggressive early and led a race high 51 laps. He won both stages and was also part of the second big crash that happened on lap 64. Stenhouse was running third when he drifted up into Kyle Busch entering turn 4; Busch was sent hard into the outside wall sweeping up William Byron who was leading a the time.
“Disappointing to get crashed out by the same guy that caused the first crash,” Busch remarked. “Our Interstate Batteries Camry showed some good speed and patience there in that first stage. We were able to come home second and grab some points there. You always come to Daytona waiting to crash and figure out when or where, and hope you can walk away from it. That’s really frustrating and disappointing to have to race these races like that on the fence or line of when are you going to wreck. But we’ll move on to next week.”
The aftermath of the crashes left many of the favorites in the garage and seemed to open the door for underdogs like Kasey Kahne who led 17 laps, and Michael McDowell who led 20.
Even Jimmie Johnson, who has had a less than memorable season to date, seemed to have a chance at victory leading 10 laps, the first laps he’s led all a season.
Not even Johnson was immune to bad luck however. He was penalized for pitting outside the box during the final round of green flag pit stops. He would lose a lap but gain it back and was charging through the field inside the top 10 with six laps to go when he was swept up in a crash between Joey Gase and McDowell that swept up Johnson and Aric Almirola.
Stenhouse suffered his own woes late in the race when he lost a tire after contact with Kyle Larson on lap 125; Stenhouse would spin with a flat tire on lap 151 on the frontstretch much to the roaring approval of the crowd. He would finish 17th one lap down and needed a police escort to leave the track.
The Stenhouse incident led to a first attempt at an overtime finish. The top three starters, Truex, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer had won a combined 10 of this seasons 15 races. The remainder none. The field was scrambled on the first attempt which ended prior to the white flag when Bubba Wallace made contact with Bowyer and set off the final big crash of the night that put Harvick, Johnson, and others out of the race. It also led to a red flag of just over 5 minutes.
On the final green-white-checkered flag start, Truex took the lead but Jones, who missed the first ‘Big One’ and suffered only slight damage in the second, took the lead on the backstretch and held on for the win.
“Oh, boy. How about that race, boys and girls?” Jones said after getting out of his car at the start-finish line. “That was something else. I thought that we were out of it and we were right back in it. Took the lead and ran away. Wow, what an awesome race. To have buyatoyota.com on here and my first win at Daytona. My first superspeedway win. What an awesome day. I am out of breath. Too much smoke in the car from that burnout. I can barely breathe. What an awesome finish.”
Behind Truex, AJ Allmendinger was third with Kahne and Chris Buescher rounding out the top five.
Ty Dillon, Matt Dibenedetto, Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman were the rest of the top 10.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kentucky Speedway for another Saturday night race, the Quaker State 400 next week.