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Nighttime is the right time at Daytona: Five memorable Clash races under the lights

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been rebranded from the Shootout to the Unlimited to the Clash, and it’s undergone myriad format changes.

One thing has remained unchanged over the past 14 years – the season-opening exhibition at Daytona International Speedway has been scheduled for Saturday night.

The run happens to coincide with the first February trip to Daytona for this writer.

So to mark covering my 15th consecutive Speedweeks, here are my rankings of the five best editions of the Clash since the race moved under the lights in 2003:

5. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 7, 2004: Dale Jarrett led only the final lap, and his Robert Yates Racing Ford won mostly because he had been a longtime friend and mentor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. … and often gave him a lift in his helicopter.

No, seriously. Jarrett is a three-time Daytona 500 winner who is among the most accomplished and adept restrictor-plate racers in NASCAR history.

But he doesn’t score this victory without help from Earnhardt, whose No. 8 Chevrolet delivered a series of violent shots to Jarrett’s No. 88 to push him past Kevin Harvick.

“I’ve got to thank my buddy Dale Jr.,” Jarrett said after his fourth and final win in this race. “He probably had the fastest car, but he was banging my back bumper. That’s what I needed – that one push to get by (Harvick). I couldn’t have done it without Dale Jr. beating the back bumper off this thing.”

Earnhardt naturally had been happy to oblige – provided he could keep bumming rides in return for the favor.

“(Jarrett) has been a good friend to me on and off the racetrack, so I figured I’d push him to lead,” Earnhardt said. “I’m one of the few drivers in the top 15 that hasn’t bought an airplane or a helicopter, nor will I as long as I’ve got friends like Dale Jarrett hauling me to Martinsville and back.”

4. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 9, 2008: New team, new sponsor, new era.

Same result.

In his highly anticipated debut with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left little doubt about why he had left Dale Earnhardt Inc., winning this race for the second time with a pass of Tony Stewart on the penultimate lap.

What made the victory more special for Earnhardt was the help he received from teammates, particularly Jimmie Johnson. The reigning series champion (whose drafting skills Earnhardt once infamously disparaged for triggering a massive crash at Talladega) delivered several critical pushes to Earnhardt, who led 47 laps.

“I got great help from my teammates,” Earnhardt said. “I hope the fans enjoyed that. New team, victory lane. Man, it don’t get no better. I’m so happy.”

He also thanked Stewart, who had spent the past two days in a high-profile feud with Kurt Busch that included two meetings with NASCAR officials.

“It took us off the front page,” Earnhardt said. “I felt like a load lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking to the NASCAR hauler.”

Stewart, another good friend, actually didn’t seem to mind being runner-up. “This kid, obviously a lot is riding on his shoulders this year with the switch for him,” he said of Earnhardt. “I’m happy for him, and he deserved it. He drove his butt off. I can’t be disappointed with second.”

3. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 8, 2003: My first time around for this race also was the first victory in the event for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he made it memorable.

NASCAR’s most popular driver started last, finished first and generally seemed to toy with the field during his first victory in the Shootout. It took him only 15 laps to reach the front of the 19-car field, and he spent the remaining 55 laps yo-yoing around with a variety of impressive moves that regained him the lead three more times – the last with a power pass of Jeff Gordon with four laps left.

It felt like watching a stock-car rope-a-dope, but Earnhardt denied there was any Ali in his heavyweight game at Daytona.

“We never really do play around with them,” he said. “I always want to be up front and be the guy leading. I don’t want to have to make that valiant pass on the last lap.”

Still, he has made a habit of doing it often in plate races. This win felt very similar to his July 2001 win at Daytona – when he powered to first in the closing laps without any help in the first race at the track since his father had been killed in a last-lap crash five months earlier.

That never seems to have diminished Earnhardt’s affection for the World Center of Racing (where his father notched a record 34 victories).

“This is like coming home to your mom from college,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “It’s great to be back here.”

2. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 12, 2006: This race was postponed by rain to late Sunday afternoon, but the lights were on by the checkered flag – which was appropriate because it was clear Denny Hamlin’s name belonged in them.

A rookie racing in the finicky Daytona draft for the first time in NASCAR’s premier series, Hamlin acquitted himself better than anyone reasonably could have expected.

Starting 15th, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver patiently bided his time and then seized the opportunity when it arrived. He didn’t lead until 20 laps to go, but then he led all but five of the remaining laps and fended off challenges from Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart.

“He didn’t make a single rookie mistake,” Stewart said of his teammate.

Hamlin finished 0.154 seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who knew the winner from playing video games.

“With about 10 to go, I started thinking, ‘What if I actually win this thing?’” Hamlin said. “Everything happened so fast, it hasn’t caught up with me yet. I can’t believe it. I probably won’t believe it until I log (online) and see my face.”

The most amazing part of Hamlin’s accomplishment was what happened afterward. He wouldn’t win another restrictor-plate race for eight years (returning to Daytona victory lane in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited).

1. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 18, 2012: Emphatically erasing the unwanted memory of tandem drafting, pack racing returned to Daytona and was punctuated by one of the greatest saves in the half-century history of the 2.5-mile oval.

Kyle Busch nipped Stewart with a nifty move off the final corner to win by 0.013 seconds, but the finish wasn’t what everyone was talking about afterward.

Halfway through the race, his No. 18 Toyota slid down the banking in Turn 2, hit Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet and then turned left twice onto the apron without losing control.

“The first time might have been luck,” Busch said. “I’m going to say the second time was all skill. I was steering, stabbing, braking, gassing, everything in between, trying to keep the thing straight, get it back under control.”

Oh, he also did get spun during the scariest of three multicar wrecks (Jeff Gordon walked away after his No. 24 landed on its roof), but Busch still managed to charge from eighth to first in an overtime finish.

“I don’t know how many times I spun out and didn’t spin out,” Kyle Busch said. “Amazing race.  It was fun to drive when I wasn’t getting turned around.

Again, Stewart was the conciliatory runner-up.

“(Busch) had to catch it three times before he saved it,” said Stewart, who caught a trail of sparks from trailing behind the evasive maneuvers. “There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have caught that. I’m like, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.’ ”

(P.S. If you like rankings and a dash of punk rock irreverence, I also spent the past 10 days counting down The Clash’s 10 greatest songs in honor of The Clash’s return. Click here for No. 1 and links to the other nine songs.)

First short track win slips away from Martin Truex Jr. on pit road

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Another short track race, another broken heart for Martin Truex Jr.

For the third time in four starts at Richmond Raceway, Truex led the most laps, and it didn’t result in victory.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, making his 450th Cup start and his 75th on a short track, saw his shot at winning the Toyota Owners 400 vanish on pit road.

After leading 121 laps from the pole, Truex lost the lead to Kyle Busch on a pit stop with 30 to go in the scheduled distance.

Truex was in second when the caution waved with nine to go in the scheduled distance. But when the dust settled, Truex found himself in 11th.

A problem with the jack as his team changed left-side tires was the culprit. After having to pit again under another caution, Truex ended the night in 14th.

“Pretty disappointed that we didn’t get at least a chance,” Truex told Fox. “It’s unfortunate, but I don’t know what we have to do to win one of these short-track (races) and get everything to go the way we need it to. Tonight, we beat ourselves, so that’s unfortunate. The guys did a really good job with the race car. We were awful at the start of the race, and I thought we were really in trouble. Just fought all night long and tried to stick with it and make good adjustments and put ourselves in position to try to win another one and just came up short.”

In Sept. 9 playoff race at the 0.75-mile track, Truex led 198 laps before crashing in overtime. In the September 2016 event, he led 193 laps before finishing third to Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

In his 75 short-track starts, Truex has earned eight top fives. The last two have come in his last two trips to Martinsville Speedway.

What drivers said after Richmond Cup race

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Kyle Busch — Winner: “I think the difference for us tonight was just the adjustments. Trying to stay with the racetrack all night long. Adam Stevens (crew chief) and my guys did a phenomenal job. I think one of the other keys to the night was just my guys – my pit crew – they got us out front when it mattered the most those last two pit stops. They were awesome tonight on pit road.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 2nd: “Just very fortunate circumstances there at the end for us with the way the restarts went. Having a short run there at the end was definitely in our favor. So it was nice to be on the good end of things for the first time in a while. Looking forward, we have to be realistic about how we ran tonight. I think the result shouldn’t weigh into how hard we worked this week because we have some work to do. I think that we have to keep that in mind.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 3rd: “We just got better as the race went on. We were 13th, 15th, something like that in the first half of the race. Just weren’t very strong. We just made some really good adjustments that got us rolling towards the front, especially on long runs. We got to the top five, then we had some pit stops there. We gained a few spots there. But, you know, restarting on that outside line, it was a huge deficit. I just couldn’t get the grip that I needed to try to run with (Kyle Busch) side‑by‑side into Turn 1. That’s all I wanted, to be within one car length getting into turn one, and I just couldn’t get it.’’

Joey Logano — Finished 4th: “We had a really good Shell Pennzoil Ford early in the race and got a couple stage wins early, which was great. We maxed out those points, which is awesome. We just lost the handle on the car and fell back to sixth or so. We had a bad pit stop and lost a bunch of spots and then had a really good pit stop and got them all right back and were able to come home with a top five. I wish I could rerun that. I feel like we can do better if we tried again. I am sure the whole field would say that. I am proud of the speed we showed at Richmond. Just want to be a little better.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 5th: “No more restarts. We were terrible on the restarts there compared to three or four of those guys. I was spinning the tires getting going there on the restarts. All of the night taken into consideration we were way better than we have been in the past and that is an important race for us to figure out where we need to be with all of the things that didn’t go right tonight and be ready for when we come back here for the playoff race.”  

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 6th: “We had to start the race on the tires we qualified with, and as soon as we got those tires off the car, we were a very competitive car and were able to stay on the lead lap. And with the long green-flag runs, we were able to still stay on the lead lap and work our way up through the field. I don’t know what we’re missing on scuff tires, but that’s something we’ve got to figure out.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 7th: “We weren’t very good all race long. And then I ended up getting the Lucky Dog there and then lost a lap … so that was kind of a hiccup on our part. I was able to get the Lucky Dog again and then charge from wherever we were to seventh the last laps. So, we salvaged a really good finish, which was good.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 9th: “We had a really good car. It’s just frustrating there at the end. All hell breaks loose. We lost a couple of spots on pit road, and that gets you back, and then you get on the outside and get stuck behind somebody that spun their tires, and you knock the front fender in on the 24 because he spun his tires. The next thing you know, you’re 10th thinking, ‘Boy, how did this night go to ruin so fast?’ Then it’s just beating and banging and everybody dive-bombing on the bottom. Those cars that are a lap down you’re lapping, and all of a sudden sticking it in three-wide with nothing to lose at the end. It’s a shame that a good, positive night ends up being like that, but that’s racing at this place.”

William Byron — Finished 12th: “I sped on pit road, and I guess I was just pushing the last segment there in the corner, and we were a little bit too fast coming onto the straightaway. Overall, a really good night. We got stage points, I think we finished fifth in both stages, and I think we finished 12th, but overall learned a lot and can just really build on this.  I love racing at short tracks. It’s a blast and definitely learned a lot from this.” 

Erik Jones — Finished 13th: “Just a really tough day. We really just didn’t have the right car from the start. I wasn’t too sure about it during practice, but once we fired off we realized it was going to be a pretty big struggle all day. We hung with it and fought hard and came home with an OK finish, but just need to get a lot better for the next one.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 14th: “Pretty disappointed that we didn’t get at least a chance. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t know what we have to do to win one of these short-tracks and get everything to go the way we need it to. Tonight we beat ourselves, so that’s unfortunate. The guys did a really good job with the race car. We were awful at the start of the race, and I thought we were really in trouble. Just fought all night long and tried to stick with it and make good adjustments, and put ourselves in position to try to win another one and just came up short. Frustrated, but proud of everyone for the effort and hopefully we get them next week.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 15th: “Richmond Raceway has always been what I consider the hardest track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit, so I was really proud of our efforts in Stage 1. Our AAA Camaro ZL1 was really good. We were the fastest car on the track for most of the run and were able to race our way from 23rd to eighth and earn a few stage points. Once the race transitioned to night, we lost some of the magic. We just weren’t as strong. I put us in a bit of a hole by earning a commitment line violation coming to pit road, but we worked hard and had a good shot at the end. It was just hard to find a line that made moves.” 

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 16th: “A 16th for us at Go Fas Racing is a heck of a run. We outran some really, really good cars all day. Our car had crazy-good long run speed and of all days for us to have really good long-run speed, today was definitely the day. But even at the end when we had the green-white-checker, we were able to pass a couple of good cars and pick up a spot or two. The team did a really good job. You know how great of a run that is for us.”

Daniel Hemric – Finished 32nd: “Obviously the results and the finish isn’t at all what we came here to do, but we started the race too far off and we lost so many laps there the first run and that put us behind for the rest of the night. With it going green like it did, I didn’t get to show how much better we got our Camaro ZL1 there throughout the race. I thought we could take off in top-15 speed after we got to work on it for the first time. It just took us getting to pit road to give us that opportunity.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 37th: “Richmond Raceway is one of my favorite tracks and to run just outside the top five, get assessed a pit-road penalty and then battle back onto the lead lap says a lot about this No. 31 Childress Vineyards Camaro ZL1 team. It’s unfortunate on the restart with 30 to go that we got into the back of a car. Everyone started checking up, and I just hit him square in the back. I did all I could, but the damage cost us our race. I’m just so disappointed right now. We had a good car and a finish that doesn’t reflect it.” 

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Late cautions help Chase Elliott to yet another runner-up finish

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Chase Elliott‘s Cup career will always be measured against Bill Elliott’s, his Hall of Fame father.

Saturday night at Richmond Raceway, the third-year driver matched his father in a stat both impressive and underwhelming.

Elliott, who remains winless, finished second for the eighth time in 86 Cup starts.

Bill Elliott was a runner-up eight times before visiting Victory Lane.

But Chase Elliott, whose result was aided by a series of late-race cautions, was the first to admit it wasn’t a product of the team having turned the corner completely in a mostly disappointing season.

“A very fortunate (set of) circumstances there at the end for us with the way the restarts went and having a short run there at the end, definitely in our favor,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “It’s nice to be on the good end of things for the first time in a while. We have to be realistic about how we ran tonight. The result shouldn’t weigh in to how hard we worked this week because we have some work to do.”

Though he started a season-best second in the Toyota Owners 400, Elliott wasn’t a factor in the race’s outcome until he restarted in the top five for two restarts during final 11 laps. He finished seventh in Stage 1.

The second place was his second top five of the season (third at Phoenix) and just the fourth for HMS overall.

The No. 9 Chevrolet pulled off the feat despite not having crew chief Alan Gustafson, who was completing a two-race suspension for an L1 penalty after the Texas race.

In the first race without him, Elliott was involved in a Lap 3 crash at Bristol and finished 29th, 27 laps off the lead.

“I think we’ve been getting better, for sure, over the course of the past handful of weeks,” Elliott said. “I thought last week was really probably our best effort as a company. Obviously we crashed at the beginning. I felt like our car was solid throughout the whole weekend. Obviously, our teammates ran well.”

But Elliott said the team needs to be “realistic” about how the first night race of the season went.

“I think anybody amongst our team would say the same thing,” he said.  “I’m not knocking anyone, anybody on my team or whoever, but we all know we need to do better.”

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Points after Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway

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With his third consecutive win this season, Kyle Busch padded his points lead over Joey Logano with a victory in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. He now has a 56-point lead and 17 playoff points.

Logano won both stages of the 400-lap affair, his first stage wins of the season.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick finished third and fourth, respectively.

Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five.

Earning 39 points for his second-place finish, Chase Elliott is 25 points behind 16th and a playoff berth in the standings.

Click here for full results.