The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season started with numerous modifications to the cars and teams: pit crews have been reduced from 6 to 5 men, there is no ride height, and there’s a new downforce package, the latter of which makes the already tricky Daytona 500 even trickier.
Along with the rule changes came a passing of the torch from the older to the newer generation. A 24-year-old Alex Bowman has taken over for Dale Earnhardt Jr behind the wheel of the #88 car; 21-year-old Erik Jones replaces Matt Kenseth behind the wheel of the #20 car; 24-year-old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr now wheels the famous #43 car; and 20-year-old William Byron takes the reins of the iconic #24 car. New changes and new faces made for an exciting race, but a piece of history made for an exciting finish.
The first stage of the race, consisting of 60 laps, started off very aggressively, with lead changes every few minutes and a veritable ton of close calls. The first caution came on Lap 9 when Corey LaJoie blew an engine in Turn 2. The yellow flag flew again for Kyle Busch in the #18 Toyota Camry who spun out after his left-rear tire went flat, for the second time in a few laps. Busch went from 5th to 38th and 3 laps down. He would go on to finish 25th, but not before serving a penalty for speeding upon entry to pit road.
Coming to the end of the first stage, drivers were anxious and already desperate for stage points. Thus, on lap 60, 3rd place driver Ryan Blaney in the #12 attempted to pass the #17 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse made an erratic block only to be tapped by the #12. Stenhouse shot up the track in front of Erik Jones and triggered a domino-effect of cars trying to check-up to avoid hitting each other. It didn’t take long before 6 cars were collected in the first wreck of the day including William Byron, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon, Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez, and, of course, Erik Jones. The last four drivers in that list sustained too much damage to be able to continue and were out of the race. Kurt Busch won the stage.
Surprisingly, the second stage began with even MORE aggression than the previous. On Lap 93, the caution came out for William Byron who blew a tire, hit the wall, and dropped debris onto the backstretch. Only a few laps later, another multi-car wreck happened when 2nd place runner and fan favorite Chase Elliott in the #9 tried to make a move for the lead. Elliott moved to the bottom of the track, where he was blocked by 1st place Ryan Blaney. Behind Elliott, Brad Keselowski in the #2 followed to the bottom and gave the #9 a push. However, given that Elliott was being blocked by Blaney, he had nowhere to go and got turned in the process. The wreck took out both the #9 (Elliott) and the #2 (Keselowski) as well as Kasey Kahne and Danica Patrick, who was making her final Daytona 500 start. Twenty laps later, the stage came to a close and it was Ryan Blaney who received the segment victory.
When the race went back green for the final 80 laps, the hostility was toned down and drivers finally settled in. We saw the longest green-flag run of the day as all remaining cars were racing single file. It wasn’t until 10 laps to go that things heated up again as William Byron spun by himself in Turn 3.
With 2 laps to go, the third big wreck of the day happened during a heated battle for the lead. In the middle of three-wide racing, defending Daytona 500 winner and leader Kurt Busch slid up the track to block a strong move on the outside by Ryan Blaney. Blaney ran into the back of Busch who whipped around and collected Alex Bowman, Brendan Gaughan, Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr – all of whom had done an excellent job of avoiding every wreck up until that point. The race went into overtime with Denny Hamlin in the #11 Toyota Camry and Aric Almirola in the #10 Ford Fusion making up the front row.
The green flag flew for a two-lap shootout with anxiety and aggression back in the air. In a desperate attempt to get the lead coming to the white flag, then third-place car Austin Dillon determinedly tagged and turned Almirola into the wall. The #10 car spun around with the remaining drivers managing to avoid any further collision. The last lap was the only one Dillon led all race long.
Dillon drove to the checkered flag in the iconic #3 car that once belonged to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. Ironically, it was the 20-year anniversary of when Sr. captured his only Daytona 500 win in his career.
Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr finished 2nd after an impressive performance all race long. Rounding out the top 5 was Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and Chris Buescher.
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