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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.)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Kyle Busch’s surly mood after the Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. – A second-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 left Kyle Busch in an irate mood, which is perfectly fine, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A seemingly agitated Busch, cupping his face in his hands after sitting down, entered the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway Center shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. It was roughly 10 minutes after Austin Dillon scored the first victory of his career in NASCAR’s premier series by stretching his final tank of fuel for 70 laps.

Was Busch surprised that Dillon made the checkered flag? What did it mean for a driver to get his first win?

“I’m not surprised about anything,” Busch snapped. “Congratulations.”

He dropped the mic on the dais. There were no further questions.

Shortly afterward on Twitter, Earnhardt took up for his peer (whom he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008).

Busch, who hasn’t won since last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (a span of 28 races) gave more elaborate answers shortly after exiting his No. 18 Toyota, which finished 0.835 seconds behind Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

He apparently didn’t realize until late in the race that his pass of Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 233 laps) with a lap remaining was for second instead of the victory.

“This M&M’s Camry was awesome tonight,” Busch said. “It was just super fast. I mean we had one of the fastest cars all night long and then (Truex) was probably the fastest. There at the end, somehow we ran him down. You know he got a straightaway out on us, but there that last 100 laps we were able to get back to him and pass him so you know that was promising for us there at the end in order to get a second-place finish, but man just so, so disappointed.

“I don’t know. We ran our own race. We did what we needed to do and it wasn’t – it wasn’t the right game. We come up short and finish second.

“It’s a frustrating night, man. There’s nothing we could’ve done different.”

Another Cup driver took a different view of Busch’s tirade.

Martin Truex Jr. takes Cup points lead after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. took over the Cup points lead with a third-place finish in Saturday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who led a race-high 233 laps, also extended his lead in the playoff standings by winning the second stage and bringing his total to 16 points.

Kyle Larson, who had led the standings for eight consecutive races since Phoenix International Raceway, fell to second in the rankings after crashing and finishing a season-worst 33rd. Larson trails Truex by five points in the race for the regular-season championship (and 15 playoff points).

Click here for the points standings after Charlotte.

Results, stats for the 58th annual Coca-Cola 600

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With a fuel gamble, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 for his first NASCAR Cup win.

It comes in his 133rd start and is the second win for Richard Childress Racing this year.

Following him was Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Click here for the full results.

Austin Dillon returns No. 3 to victory lane for first time since Dale Earnhardt’s last win

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CONCORD, N.C. – Austin Dillon scored his first Cup victory in his first start with a new crew chief, bringing an iconic number back to victory lane in NASCAR’s premier series.

Stretching his last tank of fuel 70 laps, the Richard Childress Racing driver won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I can’t believe it,” Dillon told Fox Sports. “I was just really focused on those last laps.”

It was the first victory on the circuit for the No. 3 Chevrolet since the late Dale Earnhardt’s win at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2000. Richard Childress Racing mothballed the number after Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but brought it back with Dillon in 2014.

Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, was making his debut with crew chief Justin Alexander, who replaced Slugger Labbe last week.

Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson was leading before running out of fuel with three laps remaining, handing the lead to Dillon.

“I was just trying to be patient with (Johnson),” Dillon said. “I could see him saving (fuel). I thought I’d saved enough early where I could attack at the end, but I tried to wait as long as possible. And when he ran out, I figured I’d go back in and save where I was lifting, and it worked out.

“I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to victory lane.”

With the victory, Dillon qualified for the playoffs, joining RCR teammate Ryan Newman (who clinched a berth by winning at Phoenix International Raceway).

Dillon becomes the 10th driver to score his first Cup win at Charlotte, joining David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and David Reutimann.

Who had a good race: Kyle Busch charged to second in the closing laps, following up a win last week at the All-Star Race. … Truex dominated Charlotte for the third straight year, leading a race-high 233 laps. … Joe Gibbs Racing placed three drivers in the top five, and rookie Daniel Suarez was 11th. … Rookie Erik Jones finished seventh, giving Furniture Row Racing two top 10s in a race for the first time.

Who had a bad race: It was over for Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski on Lap 20 when they were collected in a bizarre wreck as a result of a chain reaction from Jeffrey Earnhardt’s engine failure. …  Points leader Kyle Larson finished a season-worst 32nd after a crash. … Danica Patrick hit the wall twice (at least once because of a tire problem) and placed 25th.

Quote of the race: “My fiancée wrote in the car, ‘When you keep God in the first place, he will take you places you never imagined.’ And, I never imagined to be here.” – Dillon after scoring his first Cup victory.

What’s next: 1 p.m., June 4 at Dover International Speedway on FS1.