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Underdogs D.J. Kennington, Corey LaJoie have high hopes in Daytona 500

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One of the best elements of the Daytona 500 is how unexpected drivers – some may call them underdogs – can emerge to win the “Great American Race.”

Over the last half-century, several unexpected drivers went on to win the 500, including Pete Hamilton (1970), Geoffrey Bodine (1986), Derrike Cope (1990), Ernie Irvan (1991), Sterling Marlin (1994-95), Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003), Ward Burton (2002) and one of the biggest underdogs to ever win the race, Trevor Bayne (2011).

Heading into Sunday’s 59th edition of the Daytona 500, two drivers stand out as underdogs: Canadian driver D.J. Kennington and Corey LaJoie.

Kennington, 39, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will be making his second career NASCAR Cup start Sunday. His previous start was last fall at Phoenix (finished 35th).

The 25-year-old LaJoie, son of former Xfinity Series champ Randy LaJoie, will be making his third career start in the NASCAR Cup Series. His other two starts came in the fall of 2014 (41st at New Hampshire and 35th at Charlotte).

Kennington will start Sunday’s race 28th, while LaJoie starts 31st, both drivers beginning ahead of Paul Menard, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger, Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler.

Kennington may be relatively new to the Cup series, but he’s a veteran of CASCAR, NASCAR’s Pinty’s Canadian Series (108 starts, eight wins), the Xfinity Series (50 starts) and the Camping World Truck Series (five starts).

Don’t be surprised if Kennington is a bit wide-eyed and awestruck heading into Sunday’s race.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Kennington, who is driving for Gaunt Brothers Racing. “I can’t explain it really. Coming off of four (of Thursday’s Duel), I wasn’t in the race.  When we crossed the line, I was, so just an unbelievable feeling for us.”

Kennington’s achievement is made all the more outstanding given he wasn’t able to practice prior to Thursday’s Duels.

“Never being in one of these cars, never drafting out here before, it was a pretty big deal for me, a lot of learning, I tell you,” he said. “At the end we made it in. That’s huge for us.

“The hard part is over. We’re going to have some fun now.”

Corey LaJoie
Corey LaJoie

Kennington is not only racing for himself and his team, he’ll also be racing for his country.

“There’s only been eight of us Canadians that have made the 500, so that’s huge for us,” he said

As for LaJoie, he qualified for BK Racing even though he was involved in a late crash with Reed Sorenson in the first of Thursday’s two Can-Am Duel races.

“Every kid in a race car dreams of racing in a Daytona 500, and I get to do that on Sunday,” LaJoie said.

He gets to race against his idols in the sport’s biggest race.

“Man, you come here idolizing Jimmie (Johnson), Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., all of these guys,” LaJoie said. “I’m fans of all of these guys and I get to race all of them on Sunday. It’s amazing. The big man has got a plan. I’m excited to get up there and dice it up.

“It’s been a hard road and I’ve still got a long way to go, but it starts Sunday.”

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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.