Daytona provided a chance for drivers often overlooked to shine

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — They walked away with smiles but couldn’t shake one thought.

If only.

If only they had made a different move, put the car elsewhere or just had everything come together, they could have been in victory lane instead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Still, a number of drivers who had not won this season posted their best finishes of the season.

  • Paul Menard, who has one career Cup win, placed a season-best third.
  • Michael McDowell, who has never won a Cup race, finished a career-best fourth.
  • David Ragan, who has two career wins, was a season-best sixth.
  • Brendan Gaughan, who races full-time in the Xfinity Series, was seventh for his best Cup finish since 2004.
  • Corey LaJoie recorded a career-best 11th-place result.

They were survivors in a race that had an event-record 14 cautions. Twenty-seven of the 40 drivers were involved in accidents, including Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Austin Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That’s what restrictor-plate racing can do — shake up the results and give teams and drivers a better chance of winning than they would have at many other tracks.

Ragan, who has two restrictor-plate wins, was in position for Front Row Motorsports to score his first victory since 2013 at Talladega.

He led on the final restart in overtime but Stenhouse charged by to lead the final two laps.

“I missed my mark a bit coming to the white,’’ Ragan said. “I zigged when I should have zagged. It’s tough to block two or three lanes coming to the white flag. I missed it on that run. I’m just disappointed that I couldn’t close the deal.

“I should have moved to get (Ty Dillon) a little bit of a block and get down in front of (Stenhouse). Over the years, if you’re in those situations more, you just make better decisions on the fly. That’s the first time I’ve been leading like that in a green-white-checkered at a plate race in several years. I was probably a little slow to be looking in my mirrors good enough. I just didn’t know that (Stenhouse) and (McDowell) had that good of a run.’’

With that charge, McDowell scored a top-five finish. That was big because the team needs sponsorship. The sponsor on the car, WRL General Contractors is a company owned by team owner Bob Leavine and his wife.

“It’s nice to do this week after week,’’ said McDowell, who has five top-20 finishes in the last seven races. “We’ve been putting together solid runs. At the same time, coming to the line second, I thought I had a shot at (Stenhouse) but just they had such a big run behind I couldn’t hold them off.”

For as fast as Menard was with Clint Bowyer pushing him on the final lap, it wasn’t enough.

“I really did think I was going to win for a little while,’’ Bowyer said.

“I knew you were going to win if I didn’t,’’ Menard said.

Dillon looked to be in the right position when he restarted second but fell back and finished 16th.

“I wanted to do it so bad for (team owner) Bob Germain who gave me this opportunity,” Dillon said. “That is two close ones, and if you keep getting these close ones, you will get one eventually. We work hard every week, but not every week are we contending for wins. When it’s our chance, we make the most of it. So I am proud of the way we are growing as a team and we are leading a lot of laps any way we can.

“I just feel disappointed. Nobody went with me (at the end) and so that is kind of the pains of being a rookie, but I would have been mad at myself if I didn’t make a move right there. The move cost me a good finish but didn’t really determine what our day was.”

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