Mother Nature’s fireworks stole the show not once, but twice at the Daytona International Speedway over the Fourth of July weekend handing Justin Haley his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in only his third Cup Series start at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 under a rain-soaked red flag on lap 127 of a scheduled 160. And that was not the most incredible thing that happened Jul 7.
In a race that featured all the intricacies of teamwork NASCAR has to offer, from manufacturer to owner to driver it was an 18-car accident, the dreaded “Big One,” that started an incredible chain of events that ended with Haley in the winner’s circle.
After weather delayed the race by almost 24-hours, thunderstorms remained in the Daytona area all of Sunday afternoon and the always present threat of another weather stoppage loomed large as the race got closer to the finish line.
With that in mind, Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer fought aggressively over first place as they pack closed in behind them out of turn one. The resultant contact caused both drivers to spin-out directly into the oncoming drivers and the resulting carnage ultimately tallied 18 cars. Six, including Chase Elliott whose No. 9 Napa Chevy had been running third, were unable to return.
Kurt Busch emerged as the leader and with dark clouds moving over the speedway, he indicated that he was going to stay on the track for as long as possible under the yellow flag. As the skies continued to darken it looked as if the strategy was going to pay off until the one-lap to go signal was given on lap 127.
Busch, followed by a small group of drivers, immediately headed into pit-row for fuel only to see the yellow flag come back out less than half-a-lap later as the cars entered the backstretch. Despite cutting the pit-stop as short as possible, Busch re-entered the track in tenth place where he ultimately finished as a moment later the red-flag flew, and the race effectively ended with Haley in the lead.
The chaotic finish was a dramatic change from the beginning of the race as it was immediately apparent that the team tactics that proved so successful for Chevrolet and Team Hendricks Motorsports at Talladega would be on full display.
From the green flag, Logano held his inside lane as team Ford filled in behind him to push the Team Penske No. 22 to the front of the line. The strategy led to a Ford driver, primarily Logano, leading all but one lap of the first stage of the race. The final lap featured an amazing battle between Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. broke formation to challenge for the stage win but ultimately pushed Logano another to the stage victory past Team Penske teammate Kevin Harvick.
The concept of manufacturer cooperation was introduced to NASCAR by Toyota in 2016 to great effect as it effectively smashed Chevrolet’s stranglehold on the Manufacturer’s Cup. Toyota won the Manufacturer’s Cup again in 2017 before Ford beat them at their own game to win last year.
Chevy used the tactic to great effect at this year’s running of Talladega when, led by Elliott the manufacturer swept the top-three spots, and it appeared they were in a good position to win with the strategy again as the second stage closed on a tightly disciplined column of Chevy’s pulling away from the pack to give Dillon the second stage and Chevy returned the favor with a 1-4 sweep of their own.
Ultimately each driver is an independent entity with their own group of people that are counting on them to win, and as each stage comes to a close, drivers will employ their own strategy if they truly believe they have a shot at the checkered flag, but the new tactics seem to give team drivers the best chance of having that shot as evidenced by Hendricks Motorsports grabbing second and third place despite losing two drivers to the “Big One.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series brings all of its thunder and, hopefully, a lot less lightning to Kentucky Speedway on July 13 for the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart.