At approximately 8:23 pm on Saturday night, the engines of 25 of the world’s greatest stock car drivers roared to life after a couple months of silence. The NASCAR world rejoiced, as the drivers and teams focused to the task at hand for the evening: winning the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
Paul Menard led the field to the green flag as the starting order was drawn randomly. The race started with the field moving into three-wide battles for position all over the track. You got that feeling that someone was going to crash sooner or later by the aggressiveness of the drivers so early in the 75-lap race. And that happened on lap 23, when Brad Keselowski was turned into a lawnmower, as he plowed through the infield grass after Kyle Larson seemed to have came up on him as he was in the outside lane.
Keselowski said that “it’s just part of racing at Daytona,” when asked if he thought that Larson got into him. Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch slammed on the brakes, avoiding the No. 2 car, which was destroyed and did not race for the rest of the night.
The race was split up into two main segments: one 25-lap segment and one 50-lap segment. Since the first accident came on lap 23, NASCAR decided to make that specific caution the competition caution (the caution that NASCAR throws on that specific lap that is designated before the race begins), throwing any sort of strategy that any crew chiefs were thinking about out the window.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first off pit road after the competition caution, only taking two tires instead of four. Kyle Busch got some repairs before the race went back green. Also, Casey Mears, Danica Patrick and Greg Biffle were among some of the drivers that decided to come down pit road with Busch to top off on their fuel mileage.
Jamie McMurray was the victim of the first pit road rules infraction: too many men over the wall. NASCAR has instituted a new system that monitors every team’s pit stops this season, and if they break a single rule, they are penalized.
Ryan Newman was also penalized for having his car slide through too many boxes, so they both started in the back of the pack when the race restarted.
As the race wore on, and Earnhardt Jr. was leading, a large piece of debris appeared on his grille, causing his water temperature to rise rapidly. He dropped out of the lead and eventually had to pit to get the debris removed. Although he fell behind significantly, the next caution brought him back into the picture and he was able to contend for the win, satisfying JR Nation.
The “big one” involved McMurray, who was pushed by Greg Biffle from the back, spun down the track and collected almost 14 other cars. Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jimmie Johnson got the worst of the damage, along with McMurray. Hamlin was not too upset after the accident. He was in somewhat of a joking mood, saying that he “got some major hangtime” as his car went airborne a little bit through the grass.
While all of the grass and debris was being cleaned up, the race went under a red flag condition. Usually, teams cannot work on their damaged cars under a red flag, but for this race, they were allowed to, which turned out to be extremely beneficial to multiple teams, as there were two red flags during the course of this race.
After the debris was all cleaned up, Martin Truex Jr. led Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano to the green flag with 27 laps remaining. The No. 78 of Truex Jr. was going high and low, left and right, up and down, you name it, trying to block anybody and everybody. Eventually, Matt Kenseth got by the No. 78 and was in P1 with 20 laps to go.
After another caution involving Austin Dillon and Stenhouse Jr., we went back racing. But then, Kyle Busch got the air out from under Tony Stewart’s bumper, which sent him spinning down into Greg Biffle (who took a huge hit on the inside retaining wall), and Kurt Busch was also collected in this accident.
That was the last accident of the race.
After that, Kenseth led the field back to the final restart with five laps to go as his JGR teammate, Carl Edwards, was behind him in second place with defending series champion, Kevin Harvick, giving the No. 20 of Kenseth a big push to start the final restart in third place.
Kenseth was flying at 200 MPH into the sunset, while everybody behind him was jockeying for position, trying to chase him down. Truex Jr. could not quite catch him, as Kenseth won his first career Sprint Unlimited, his first win in the Cup series since the Budweiser Duels last season.
In victory lane, Kenseth said, “Everybody’s just been working really hard and all our cars have speed, which is important.”
But that was not the end of the evening’s festivities by any means.
After the race, Harvick and Logano got into a little battle of bumper cars on pit road. Harvick was displeased with Logano because he shoved the No. 4 of Harvick into the wall trying to draft coming to the white flag, killing any chances of winning for him. They both got out of their cars, exchanged some words, and let’s just say that Logano had some not so nice words to say to Harvick, as he reached for the helmet of the defending champion, but was restrained by a No. 22 crew member.
After the tempers cooled down somewhat, Logano, who was visibly frustrated and maybe even somewhat confused, said that it was “just Kevin being Kevin […] new year same stuff with him.”
Harvick replied in a separate post-race interview by saying that he “just told him [he] didn’t appreciate the way he raced me,” and added that it was some “really dumb driving” at the end by Logano.
As you can see, although this was technically a preseason race, drivers’ desires to win are higher than they have ever been in the half-century history of NASCAR.
The good news? Daytona 500 qualifying is Sunday afternoon, the Budweiser Duels are Thursday evening and the Great American Race is next Sunday.
This race was one for the ages, and I’m sure that the tempers, racing and excitement will only increase from here on out.
Davey Segal is the host of Victory Lane for Impact Sports