We’re not sure whether the biggest storyline to come out of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was Erik Jones in the #20 Toyota Camry winning his first Cup race at the 60th annual running of the July event at Daytona International Speedway, or whether it was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who almost single-handedly wiped out the majority of the field during an aggressive and somewhat desperate run to make it into the playoffs.
As this was ‘technically’ NASCAR’s July 4th Independence Day celebration, the night race kicked off in red, white and blue as it recognized 3 Medal of Honor recipients as well as paid tribute to 5 branches of the military.
This was Chase Elliott‘s third time as polesitter at Daytona and he led the first 12 laps of Stage One with his Hendrick teammates, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson, running P2 and P3 respectively. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. challenged the lead on Lap 14 whereupon the top line of cars began running single file. The inside lane could not get organized until 5 laps to go in the stage when Penske teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney stepped out of line to make a run to the front. With the momentum building, Kyle Busch in the #18 Camry seized the opportunity to step out in front of Logano, taking it 3-wide for the end of Stage One. The win went to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who had managed to hang onto the top groove and stay out front.
Then it was onto Stage 2 with growing and palpable intensity. The first caution of the night entangled Jimmie Johnson and Paul Menard. As Menard moved from the top groove to the bottom, Johnson had a run coming up the middle and accidentally hooked Menard, spinning him down the track and through the grass as his hood flipped up and waved like a flag on the end of its tethers.
And then came the anticipated BIG ONE, as with every restrictor plate race. Actually, it was just the first big one and happened on Lap 53, as rookie William Byron in the #24 Camaro was pulling the top lane. Unfortunately, Byron blocked late as he saw the #2 of Brad Keselowski get a run on the inside line. With nowhere to go, Keselowski lifted to give Byron room but Ricky Stenhouse Jr didn’t afford the field the same courtesy and chose not to lift although there was space to do so. He rammed Keselowski, who was already loose, and spun the #2 Miller Lite Ford up the track. The melee ensued as 18 cars were collected including Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch, and more. Those named were out for the rest of race and were released from the infield care center.
But the wrecking didn’t stop there. Two laps after the race went back to green, Ricky Stenhouse Jr was side drafting Kyle Busch in an effort to get back to the lead and turned directly into Busch’s left-rear quarter panel which sent the #18 into William Byron. Stenhouse drove away as his actions played out behind him. Besides Busch and Byron, Jaime McMurray and Corey Lajoie were also done for the night. Stenhouse’s #17 finished the second stage in P1 once again.
The final segment saw significantly fewer drivers making less aggressive moves. Still, on Lap 102, Martin Truex Jr deliberately slid to the back and rode around 4 seconds behind the lead pack, all in an effort to avoid more commotion.
As if karma came calling, Stenhouse’s #17 occurred damage on Lap 124 when Kyle Larson in the #42 lost control after the right-rear tire popped, and spun directly in front of Stenhouse’s Ford. The grandstands erupted with booming cheers when the #17 slid down the backstretch. Larson left the race, while Stenhouse got some repairs and got back onto the track. However, it wasn’t long before Stenhouse’s tire popped as well, this time on the front stretch… the grandstands cheered once again.
With 5 laps remaining, the caution flag flew for the 9th time in the race for a multicar wreck featuring Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, and Joey Gase. The race was then put into overtime. However, another accident on the front stretch occurred prior to the white flag (start of the last lap), meaning there would be a second attempt at overtime. This final wreck started when Bubba Wallace in the #43 had a run behind Clint Bowyer in the #14. Wallace pushed the #14 offside and caused a massive crash that brought out the red flag. Other drivers involved included Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Trevor Bayne, Alex Bowman, and more.
Finally, after 10 cautions, one red flag, and 20 cars eliminated, the last two laps settled it, with an intense battle between Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr, with Jones taking the checkered flag.
“That was something else,” said Jones, who had led just one lap – the final one. “I thought we were out of it but then we were right back in it. My first Cup win, my first Daytona win, my first superspeedway win. What an awesome day.”
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