Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Friday 5: Restrictor-plate kings and Daytona tactics

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s pied-piper on restrictor-plate tracks, creates the question of who are the best plate drivers in Cup.

Many say Brad Keselowski, noting his five Talladega victories and one Daytona victory in his career, but it is not unanimous.

In the last three years Keselowski is tied with Penske teammate Joey Logano for most points wins at a restrictor-plate track with three each. The only other drivers with more than one plate win in the last three years are Earnhardt (2) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2). The only other drivers to win a restrictor-plate race in the last three years is Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch with one each.

Keselowski’s success has come from the strong Fords Team Penske has had, a veteran spotter in Joey Meier and the ability to control the pack while leading, darting back and forth between lanes to block.

 “It would be kind of weird to put my own name out there, but I think Joey is really good and Denny Hamlin is really good,’’ Keselowski said. “I think my teammate, Ryan Blaney, is becoming really good. If I had to pick one more, probably Kevin Harvick.”

Harvick, though, sides with those who have done well lately.

“I think the guys that have the most success right now have been Brad and Joey, and I think the Fords have the fastest cars in the race usually when you look at the past restrictor-plate races,’’ Kevin Harvick said.

Kyle Busch views the top of the class this way:

“The last couple years, I look at Brad and Denny as being the top two guys,’’ Busch said. “I think the speed of Stenhouse’s car was pretty important last year. He did a good job with it, won some races. But I got to look at Brad and Denny, the things they do, as the guys you kind of watch, see if you can mimic, emulate some of the stuff they have going on in order to get yourself through the pack and up towards the front.”

What is it that Keselowski and Hamlin do so well?

“It’s like they’re outside the car and they can see the things that are happening behind them better than I can,’’ Busch said. “Like, I can only see what’s happening behind me, the guy that’s directly behind me. I can’t necessarily tell the run that he’s getting and where the energy is coming from behind him. It’s like those guys are standing outside their car, they’re feeling or seeing what all is happening, where to get that energy from, all that sort of stuff.’’

Hamlin sees a similarity with Keselowski in how they race on plate tracks.

“I think me and Brad have similar driving styles on the superspeedways in how they do things,’’ Hamlin said. “I think there’s other things that make bold moves, and it looks good for a highlight reel, but it’s not always great for winning a race. And so I think there is a difference, and it just ‑‑ for whatever reason, our styles have morphed into kind of the same driver on these types of racetracks, and it’s really just ‑‑ for whatever reason, it’s made us successful.’’

2. AT WHAT PRICE WAS Alex Bowman’S POLE?

Kevin Harvick questioned the tactic by Alex Bowman in Thursday night’s first qualifying race.

Bowman, who won the pole for the Daytona 500, immediately went to the outside and fell to the back of the pack after the green flag waved. He spent most of race in the back and finished 14th.

“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today in my opinion,’’ Harvick said. “They’ll go out and practice. Starting on the pole is great but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time in my opinion.’’

Crew chief Greg Ives defended the action.

“I saw those guys wreck and that’s something we weren’t going to have to do,’’ he told reporters after the race. “I’m already locked into the pole position, so there’s no sense being out there and having people get around you and get in a situation to get wrecked. You always want to get experience in the draft but … I didn’t think it was a benefit. We came down here with a plan and we’re going to stick with the plan. Right now it’s working out.’’

Bowman said this week that his car was “trimmed out’’ in qualifying, meaning that downforce had been taken out so the car would be faster. That’s great for single-car qualifying but teams were not allowed to change their cars before the qualifying races, so that meant that Bowman’s car likely would be unstable in traffic. To avoid the potential problems, Bowman went straight to the back.

In a race that saw a fourth of the 20 cars eliminated by accidents, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, Bowman survived and has his No. 1 starting spot intact. There’s still the chance to draft in practice if the team elects — remember how Chad Knaus and Johnson used to famously avoid the draft in practice previously — and fine-tune the car once they can make adjustments for it to handle better in traffic.

If nothing else, Bowman’s pole provide additional exposure for his sponsors, marked the fourth straight year Hendrick Motorsports won the Daytona 500 pole and gave the organization something to rally around after a disappointing season that featured only four wins — the fewest for Hendrick since 2000.

3. RICKY STENHOUSE JR. GAINED NOTICE IN HIS RACE

It was as if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. raced with a billboard-sized, neon-colored “Look at Me!” sign during his qualifying race Thursday night.

But he wasn’t trying to gain the attention of fans but fellow competitors.

In the first qualifying race, Stenhouse repeatedly dived to the bottom lane and tried to make moves.

“I was just kind of tired of riding around on the outside,’’ Stenhouse said.

But his actions also did more, showing the field, particularly those that weren’t in his race, how well his car handled and the speed it had. It was a chance to remind drivers that his car would be a good one to work with in the Daytona 500.

Ford has won the past seven restrictor-plate races and has won two of the three events in Speedweeks with Brad Keselowski winning the Clash and Ryan Blaney winning his qualifying race Thursday.

4. STILL GOING

Richard Petty is 80 years old and still continues to be a part of the sport when he easily could enjoy a more casual life of retirement.

So why does he keep going?

“I’ve been going to the races since I was 11 years old,’’ Petty said. “It’s in your blood. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do the racing part.’’

5. THE FINAL WORD

Clint Bowyer offered this at Media Day earlier this week when told by a reporter that he looked leaner and asked how he had gotten that way.

“I just quit eating,’’ Bowyer said. “That is what you have to do when you get fat. Quit eating and quit drinking. Be miserable, and hire a trainer that is mean as hell.”

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Ryan Blaney wins Can-Am Duel No. 1 in overtime finish, Joey Logano second

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Ryan Blaney edged out teammate Joey Logano and Darrell Wallace Jr. to win Thursday’s first Can-Am Duel qualifying race in an overtime finish.

Blaney led six laps of the race that helps determine the starting field for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

It’s the second 1-2 finish for Team Penske of Speedweeks after Brad Keselowski beat Logano in The Clash on Sunday.

The top five was completed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kurt Busch.

Blaney, who will start third in the Daytona 500, was pushed to the lead on the restart by Wallace.

“I saw (Wallace) was third and figured he’d give me a good push,” Blaney told Fox Sports 1. “He did a good job of racing us home. He did a great job. … I thought our cars in the Clash and tonight have been really, really good. We have amazing speed. Hopefully we can bring it home on Sunday.”

Logano narrowly beat Wallace to the checkered flag after they battled down the frontstretch. Wallace will start the Daytona 500 in seventh.

“We were just biding our time there, got to the top and rode,” Wallace told Fox Sports 1. “I think the biggest challenge for me there at the end there was obviously pushing Blaney out (front), you’re welcome, bud. But then to keep the 41 (Busch) behind me. He was pretty aggressive. … A little late moving up in front of the 22 (Logano). But seventh is a lot better than 25th.”

The two-lap shootout was set up be a crash on the backstretch between Keselowski and Jamie McMurray with three laps to go in the scheduled 60-lap race.

Keselowski was in third when McMurray made a run on his outside. Keselowski moved up and made contact before turning in to the outside wall. Keselowski finished 16th, McMurray placed ninth.

MORE: Race results

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Joey Logano finished second after leading 56 of 63 laps, a record for laps led in a Duel … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his career-best finish in a Duel. His best result in his first six tries was 10th … Daniel Suarez bounced back from an early accident to finish eighth.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: The first caution was issued on Lap 8 for a wreck in the tri-oval involving Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola. Only Suarez was able to continue. … Johnson has wrecked out of both of his Speedweeks races so far … William Byron spun on Lap 39 after Stenhouse. attempted to pass him low in the tri-oval, which got Byron loose and turned him into the outside wall. Byron finished 18th … David Gilliland wrecked out with 12 laps to go after Stenhouse made a move to pass him and got Gilliland loose. He finished 17th …

NOTABLE: William Byron, Arica Almirola, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson will use backup cars in the Daytona 500. They will start from the rear of the field … Blaney’s win is the first for a Ford in a Duel since Matt Kenseth in 2012.

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “There were the two best friends that ever was on the bottom with Darrell (Wallace Jr.) and Blaney there. They pushed the heck out of each other.” – Joey Logano

Questions remain for drivers heading into tonight’s qualifying races

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — A twist to tonight’s qualifying races is how much uncertainty surrounds the 150-mile events (7 p.m. ET).

Unlike years past at Daytona International Speedway, Cup teams have not been allowed to adjust their car or practice since making single-car qualifying runs Sunday. The choice was simple for teams: Make the car fast in a bid for the pole or make it stable — and slower — to be better prepared for the qualifying race.

Hendrick Motorsports scored the pr coup by winning the Daytona 500 pole for Alex Bowman. Now, the No. 88 driver likely will have a car that won’t feel as comfortable, particularly if he’s shuffled back into the pack. Then if he is involved in a crash and goes to a backup car, he loses that No. 1 starting spot.

MORE: Starting lineups for Can-Am Duel qualifying races

I think sitting on the pole we kind of showed our hand that we’re pretty trimmed out,’’ Bowman said of taking out downforce and stability for speed. “Now it’s my job to keep it out of trouble. It’s going to be a handful. Hopefully, on some of the pit stops we can work on it a little bit.

“I wouldn’t worry about how we’re going to run in the Duel. We’re going to try to keep the race car as safe as we can.’’

Of course, there are points at stake. Stage points will be given at the end of the 60-lap race. The winner receives 10 points. The point total decreases by one down to 10th place, which receives one point.

It’s good to start the year with 10 points before the 500 even starts,’’ said Denny Hamlin, who won one of the two qualifying races last year and qualified second for this year’s 500. “I think I have to try to win the race, but if I catch myself in a tough spot in the middle, three-wide with three to go, I’ve got to try to get out of it. It’s not worth five points and then getting a wreck and taking away our best car.”

An ill-handling car can be too much even for those considered among the most talented drivers. Kyle Larson fought his car in Sunday’s Clash.

“It felt like the car was just like out of the track, like not a lot of grip, the air was kind of moving me around wherever it wanted to,’’ Larson said. “There wasn’t much I felt I could do. I was happy we got in line single file so I could just relax, and I was still on it. I still felt like I was going to spin out every time I went into a corner. 

“So it’s just a sketchy, sketchy feeling when you’re going 200 miles an hour and you’ve got a line of cars behind you that are there ready for you to crash and run into you. Yeah, hopefully we can get our car driving better.”

Larson and others couldn’t take what they learned from the Clash to adjust the setup in the qualifying car because those cars were impounded before the Clash race began.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won two restrictor-plate races last year, sees his qualifying race as an opportunity. If he’s collected in a wreck and has to go to another car? So be it.

“I’m going for points,’’ Stenhouse said. “(After) the race was over Sunday, I talked to my crew chief and I told him, ‘Hey, I want to get this Clash car turned around and ready to go in case we need to run it come Sunday.’ I didn’t want to run our backup car that I haven’t raced. 

“I really liked the way our car drove in the Clash, so I told him if something happens to our 500 car in the Duel that I want to bring our Clash car back down here, so we’re bringing it back down. They’ve already got it cleaned up and turned around and ready to go, so it will come back down here. But we want to go get points.  We want to win a Duel and collect another trophy and put ourselves in the best starting spot come Sunday, but if something happens in that, I feel really comfortable with our Clash car that we had.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has lived the yellow line controversy before

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In wading into the controversial yellow-line penalty issued Sunday to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in The Clash, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is speaking from experience.

In his fourth consecutive victory at Talladega Superspeedway nearly 15 years ago, Earnhardt went below the yellow line while passing Matt Kenseth for first and led the final two laps. He wasn’t penalized.

There are some parallels to the penalty Stenhouse received Sunday for driving below the yellow line to complete a pass of Busch. In both instances, Kenseth and Busch moved down the banking and then swerved back up when they seemed to realize a car was on the inside.

Compare the incidents in these videos (the Earnhardt pass occurs at the 3:14:30 mark):

There are some critical distinctions:

–Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford swooped down from much higher up the track — about three lanes — than Busch, whose No. 18 Toyota was in the lane above Stenhouse’s No. 17 Ford.

–Stenhouse’s tires were below the yellow line earlier roughly when his Ford had just cleared the left-rear quarter panel of Busch’s Toyota. The left front of Earnhardt’s No. 8 Chevrolet doesn’t dip under the yellow line until the car is nearly even with Kenseth’s car.

But in both cases, Earnhardt and Stenhouse went below the yellow line before clearing the car above them.

NASCAR even conceded this after Earnhardt’s victory in explaining why it didn’t issue a penalty.

“This was a judgment call very obviously,” late spokesman Jim Hunter said. “There is no question that [Earnhardt] went below the yellow line. … He already had passed (Kenseth).”

“I ran [below the line] to keep from running into him,” Earnhardt said after the race. “By that time, I was already past him.”

Before that April 6, 2003 race at Talladega, drivers were given the same ground rules by NASCAR in the prerace meeting: Cars that improved their position by crossing the yellow line would be black-flagged.

Reaction from other drivers after the race was mixed. Jimmie Johnson, who led a race-high 65 laps and had been battling with Kenseth for the lead, said Earnhardt “was clearly below the yellow line. I didn’t think it was a legal pass.” Asked afterward if he would make the same maneuver, runner-up Kevin Harvick said, “that’s a good question. I’ll plead the fifth on that one.”

Sunday’s race promises to spark a new round of questions from drivers, who could be seeking clarification from NASCAR on judgment calls made in a game of inches at 200 mph.

Stenhouse posted on Twitter that his only option would have been to wreck the field by holding his line and making contact with Busch. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell has said Stenhouse could have avoided a penalty by immediately yielding the spots he gained on the pass.

“It is a judgment call, and people are mostly going to disagree when we make judgment calls, but that’s OK,” O’Donnell said during his weekly spot with “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We try to be clear as we can in the drivers meeting that if you go below the yellow line, you cannot advance your position. In this case, we saw (Stenhouse) go below the yellow line, advance the position.

“When we have not made the call is if that position is given up or if that car kind of backs off and gives that position back, we’ve been OK with it historically. That didn’t happen, so in this case we had to make the call. We viewed it as a pass that was maintained below the yellow line.”

NASCAR has been enforcing the yellow line rule since the July 2001 race at Daytona International Speedway.

Social Roundup: Dale Earnhardt Jr. calls for end to rule that penalized Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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A minor controversy arose from Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed Kyle Busch while running beneath the yellow line at the bottom of the track.

The pass occurred on the backstretch with 33 laps to go in the race.

Stenhouse was below Busch — but above the yellow line — when Busch came down the track, causing Stenhouse to go beneath the line. When Stenhouse returned above the line, he was ahead of Busch.

Stenhouse, who won two restrictor-plate races last year, had to serve a pass-through penalty in the pits as result. He finished the 75-lap race in 16th, two laps down.

In a video played in the pre-race driver-crew chief meeting, it states that if a driver goes down below the yellow line to advance their position, they will be penalized. If a competitor forces another competitor below the yellow line they may be penalized.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will serve as an analyst for NBC’s NASCAR coverage this year, addressed the issue after the race.

Earnhardt exchanged tweets on the rule with Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer.

The exchange ended with Earnhardt declaring that the rule needs to be eliminated.

Stenhouse then added his two cents, which Fox Sports analyst Jeff Gordon responded to.

Earnhardt himself was involved in a similar scenario in 2003 at Talladega Superspeedway.

With five laps to go in the spring race, Earnhardt made a move to surge by Matt Kenseth for the lead. As he began to pull even, Kenseth moved down toward Earnhardt, which caused him to escape below the yellow line.

Earnhardt returned to the racing surface in the lead. After the white flag waved, NASCAR ruled Earnhardt’s pass legal.