The Great American Race, the Daytona 500, kicked off the 2019 NASCAR season as 40 drivers, including hometown favorite Chase Elliott, pushed themselves through 200 laps around the 2.5-mile ovoid course on Feb. 17.
After an almost routine 185-laps of racing that saw very little contact between the drivers, the final 15 laps saw four yellow flags, two red flags and three wrecks that took out over half the field, as well as an overtime sprint by Denny Hamlin to secure the first checkered flag of the year.
Elliott, who started the race in the 18th position, managed to avoid two of the final three wrecks only to find himself crushed into the wall on the last lap by Erik Jones as he lost control of the No. 14 car on a move to the inside lane.
The wreck marked another disappointing finish for Elliott who, despite an outstanding qualifying record at Daytona. has yet to finish a race on the track, a trend he alluded to when he discussed his strategy for success in a pre-race interview.
“The key to winning is not to crash, first and foremost,” Elliott said. “This is my fourth one, and I haven’t finished one yet.”
The week started well for Elliott and the Hendriks Motorsports Team as they posted a clean sweep of the qualifying event on Feb. 10 with the four fastest times of the day.
“We learned a lot from last year,” Elliott said. “And we put in a lot of hard work over the winter to prepare for this season.”
Unique in the world of racing, the qualifying event at Daytona only sits the pole and second positions of the field. All other drivers are slotted into one of two duel events, known this year as the Gander RV Duels, and their position in the main race is determined by their finish in the duel.
Based on his qualifying time, Elliott started in the second spot of Gander RV Duel No. 2 and went onto finish the 60-lap race in eighth place to secure his spot in Sunday’s main event.
“We’ve been fortunate in the duels over the last couple of years, but that hasn’t translated well in the race itself,” Elliott said.
Starting from the 18th position, Elliott spent most of his time in the middle of the pack until he began to work his way toward the front in the final laps of the race. Brad Keselowski’s cut tire on lap 185 resulted in the ninth caution of the race.
As the green flag brought the race back to full speed with 10 to go, Elliott began to push up the outside and moved into 12th place before Matt DiBenedetto and Paul Menard collided with each other, and the ensuing carnage took out almost half the field to place the race under a red flag just under 30 minutes.
Having barely escaped the chaos with minimal damage, Elliott found himself closer to the front of the pack and once again began charging forward when the green flag flew, this time diving low in an effort to get around the leaders.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. broke loose two laps later as he tried to cut through the pack and tapped the Keselowski’s bumper to take another four cars out of the race.
Once again, Elliott managed to avoid severe damage to his No. 9 Napa car as he spun into the infield grass and slid back out onto the track to wait out the second red flag in two laps.
With two laps remaining, the green flag flew once more, and almost immediately Jones found himself spinning out of turn four to collide with Elliott and end the race for both drivers.
Under overtime rules the race re-started one final time for a two-lap sprint that saw the two remaining undamaged cars, both Toyotas from the Gibbs Racing team, outpace what was left of the field and Hamlin went on to take checkered flag and his second career Daytona 500 victory.
Elliott, who completed 198 of 200 laps, went on to finish in 17th overall, and will race again at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 on Feb. 24.