Ryan: Four drivers had a Daytona 500 win in reach. Here’s how it got away

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – There’s only one winner of the Great American Race, and technically up to 39 losers annually.

But the number of drivers who lose with legitimate shots at a Daytona 500 victory — but watch them get squandered, snatched away or simply vanish in the capricious draft — varies every season.

Sunday’s race seemed one of the longest list of “woulda coulda shouldas” in recent memory.

No fewer than four drivers in the final 10 laps made decisions while leading that they desperately would have wanted back.

A few flicks of the wheel in other directions, and the course of history instantaneously could have resulted in someone other than Austin Dillon hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy.

This has been a theme lately in the Daytona 500. Sunday marked three straight last-lap passes for wins, and the 2016 finish might have been the cruelest of all for Matt Kenseth.

Nearly a year after his bid at third Daytona 500 victory vanished in the final corner with a split-second call to block an outside charge (if he stayed put, he probably wins),  Kenseth still wasn’t over the agony entering last season. “All I can remember is losing one,” he told NBC Sports a year ago.

How many times will this year’s class of the heartbroken say the same after rewinding the video and replaying the memories of the moves they didn’t make?

Here’s what could haunt them until at least their next shot at Daytona – and possibly long afterward.

Aric Almirola: In his first start at Stewart-Haas Racing, he seemed to be lamenting the finish the most among the contenders – and it wasn’t only because he had the lead until being moved by Dillon entering the third turn on the last lap. Almirola was “devastated” by the knowledge of what was left on the table – “a career changing race.”

It’s difficult to second-guess many of the maneuvers by the No. 10 Ford in crunch time: Almirola did well just to position himself for the win. But he probably would rerun the last lap, when he had Denny Hamlin behind him on the inside while Dillon was on the outside with a heavy push from Bubba Wallace.

The situation was similar to Kenseth’s – instinctually, it’s difficult for a driver to stay calm and in the inside lane when a competitor is coming with a full head of steam on the high lane.

But the trend Sunday was the outside was faster on the straightaways while the inside was quickest in the turns. If Almirola stays put, does Dillon’s momentum stall in the last two corners? The outcome probably is the same because he had little help, but that might have been what kept Almirola up Sunday night.

Denny Hamlin: With Hamlin in the lead on an overtime restart and only seven winning-caliber cars on the lead lap behind him, this certainly seemed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s race to lose.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is regarded as one of the two or three best restrictor-plate drivers by his peers, and he certainly was the most adept and experienced contender left in the field.

But the lack of a Toyota drafting partner (JGR’s other three cars were long out of the running) ultimately took the decision out of Hamlin’s hands. He had to choose to restart ahead of Buescher or Dillon, both in Chevrolets, and after a debate on his team radio, he went with Buescher – but not because of the JTG Daugherty Racing driver.

Hamlin had his eye on Paul Menard’s Ford in fifth, which he felt was better than Bubba Wallace’s Chevy in sixth. “Obviously, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know that it’s made or break by the fifth‑ and sixth‑place drivers,” he said. “It’s not really who’s directly behind you, and I felt like (Menard) was probably going to be one of the best pushers. I saw how strong his car was.  So we tried to get on the radio and get (Buescher) behind us, (Menard) to try to buy in on whatever line gets organized the most is going to win the race. Those are the cars that’s going to battle it out for the victory.”

Buescher committed, but Menard didn’t, blunting the momentum of the inside and leaving Hamlin in the wake of Almirola, Wallace and Dillon. “So just a 50/50-coin flip and chose the wrong lane,” he said. “Honestly feel like there was nothing else I could have done (other than) just made a different decision there on lane choice.”

One other call Hamlin might be reconsidering? The decision to make the last green-flag pit a lap later than the lead pack (for a clean entry and exit, perhaps after Hamlin nearly lost two laps on a penalty for sliding through his box on the first stop). Hamlin dropped from third to eighth after a stop that he said was “almost too good” because he rejoined the track too far ahead and got gobbled up by the draft of the cars that pitted together. “They took us out of control of the race,” he said.

Ryan Blaney: He led a race-high 118 laps in another example of plate-racing excellence in his short Cup career, but Sunday showed the Team Penske driver still lacks experience. His No. 12 Ford seemed in control with the lead and Kurt Busch’s Ford behind him on a restart with seven laps left, but Hamlin just snookered him from fifth on the inside lane.

Blaney made an impressive recovery to lead the next lap briefly over Busch but lost the lead again. When Busch made a mistake going low two laps later, Blaney took the lead again but dropped from first the next lap when Hamlin went by with Busch in tow. A third shot at redemption for Blaney was eliminated by a multicar crash triggered by a block from Busch.

The main takeaway for Blaney, who had the strongest car in the second half, is learning how to be more strategic and less emphatic with his blocking.

Kurt Busch: He had a couple of shots at becoming the first winner of consecutive Daytona 500s in more than 20 years. But he landed in what he described as a “Bermuda Triangle” on the move in which he apparently delivered an inadvertent push that propelled Hamlin’s Toyota past Blaney’s Ford (Busch has been emphasizing his ties to the Blue Oval, which might present a landing spot in sports cars when his NASCAR career ends).

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver seemed to be second-guessing whether he should have used Dillon’s winning strategy – drill Hamlin and hope he could drive past him without crashing.

“It seemed like when Hamlin blocked us, I hit him pretty hard, and that killed a lot of my momentum,” he said. “Maybe I should have just flung the 11, but you have to treat guys with respect and you’ve also got to throw your elbows out, and you have to hold the hits when you get hit. We were close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”

Dillon’s victory came on the 17th anniversary of the last-lap Daytona 500 wreck that killed Dale Earnhardt, the most recent NASCAR fatality at Daytona International Speedway.

It’s easy to forget that Dillon also cheated death at the 2.5-mile oval after an airborne crash in the July 5, 2015 race that ripped a 60-foot swath of the catchfence and left Dillon sitting helpless in a stationary, mangled shell of his No. 3 when it was hit at speed

Sunday he admitted that, despite his Lane Frost impression after exiting the car with no injuries, the wreck stayed with him 30 months later and admittedly still makes him nervous.

“When it happened, I didn’t know how big it was, and then you see videos of it, and you’re like, ‘How did I like walk out of that like with nothing?’” he asked. “I get nervous coming here.  I think everybody does.  Especially like the first race in the Clash, I remember before the race, I was like, ‘Man, there’s something about this place that just makes you nervous.’

“But once you get in the race car and you settle in, the belts are tight, you’re like, all right, it’s time to go racing.  It’s fun again.  This place is just cool because of that.  If it didn’t make you nervous, something would be wrong, I think.”

Close your eyes and ignore the Piedmont accent, and it would be easy to pretend you were hearing that being said in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott’s wicked head-on collision was cringeworthy to witness on such a fateful day in NASCAR history, but it was another reminder that Earnhardt’s greatest legacy remains that it sparked a safety revolution that is the longest period without a fatality in NASCAR national series history.

Yet it still is jarring to hear Joe Nemechek say after last Friday’s truck series race that “it’s pretty tough to get hurt in these cars anymore with all the safety innovations that have come through, soft walls, the carbon seats.”

Nemechek is a veteran who speaks from painful experience – his brother, John, died in a 1997 truck crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And he was giving a candid answer to what it’s like to watch his son, John Hunter (named for Joe’s late brother), involved in a caution.

But it feels like whistling past the graveyard to imply that Earnhardt’s death might be NASCAR’s last. History shows it won’t be, and with blocking becoming part and parcel to plate racing, the brutal wrecks Sunday at Daytona probably will become more of the norm.

It’s possible for NASCAR to legislate blocking through wholesale rule changes, but it was striking that seemingly no one was lobbying for limits during and after 500 miles of incessant aggression.

Contrast that with Speedweeks in 2006 when Tony Stewart sternly warned someone would die if measures to restrict slam-drafting weren’t taken, or the 2002 Talladega race that prompted a virtual revolt among veterans.

Not anymore. A mix of acceptance and resignation about blocking as an accepted part of doing business colored the words of many drivers Sunday. It was particularly true in interviews with Almirola, who didn’t seem the slightest bit miffed about being punted by Dillon (conceding he would have done the same). Almirola’s boss, the guy nicknamed “Smoke” who once bragged of meting out retribution for any young turks daring to impede his progress, might have had a different opinion.

To hear more of his discussion, this was a topic on Monday’s post-Daytona episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play and elsewhere.

Wallace and Hamlin exchanged some barbs in postrace interviews, but they also had a heated exchange of words in the garage after Hamlin left the media center and Wallace was headed there.

It apparently was caught on camera by the crew that is following Wallace’s rookie season for a Facebook Watch documentary. That might be worth watching for over the final two episodes airing this week.

Though it was another tantalizing example of youth vs. establishment, it’s hard to see things lingering between Wallace, 24, and Hamlin, 37, who often play golf and basketball together.

Counting Dillon, the top three finishers at Daytona are members of Hamlin’s “Hoop Group”, where the trash talking might get a little fiercer.

While NASCAR still is waiting to hear if Monster Energy will pick up a two-year option of its title sponsorship beyond 2018, there was another sign the beverage company has made some headway on getting its requests met. The branding on the flag stand made Daytona International Speedway the latest track to more prominently display Monster logos (which were more visible at several tracks last fall).

Because its deal with NASCAR was signed so late before beginning last season, Monster still has been ironing out details with tracks on guarantees of exposure. It’s hard to predict which way its extension could go, but branding similar to Daytona only can help improve NASCAR’s chances.

The first true test will come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it’s rare that a NASCAR initiative such as the optical scanning system is as well received as the new inspection process was at Daytona.

If a full complement of cars is on the grid as early for qualifying and the race at Atlanta, NASCAR really might be on to something.

Also, credit to NASCAR for announcing penalties on team members during the course of last weekend rather than waiting until midweek. NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell explained in his weekly SiriusXM spot Monday that this is part of a laudable effort to get out of the game of announcing midweek penalties.

That hopefully goes for postrace inspection, too, eventually, though it’s unclear where NASCAR will land on that (and there were no inspection problems after the Cup and Xfinity races at Daytona).

The author of this column headline will concede it might have been taken the wrong way (though the text below it was intended as elucidation).

While the Duels are becoming antiquated creatures in the charter system, the concept of hosting warmup races for the biggest race of the season is more important than ever. This is an opportunity to reimagine Speedweeks in a throwback way.

Teams will complain about putting too many cars at risk. Even some fans will protest having “too much” racing.

Ultimately, the complaints should be weighed against reality, which is that racing cars is the most surefire way to ensure a buildup of compelling storylines for the biggest race of the season. Even if they are just 20-lap dashes a la The Clash of yesteryear.

If NASCAR removes the “open” classification holding four slots for non-charter cars every week, that would free up some extra cash to post, too, for bonus events.

It’s understandable that the Duels, which have been run in some form since the track’s 1959 opening, would be viewed as sacred cows. There also has been much discussion about giving NASCAR fans too much “change” to digest. This has been true when the “change” isn’t necessarily warranted but is intended more as a leap of faith toward something better.

That is not the case in this instance. Under the current economic, purse and team structure, the Duels (nee Twins) aren’t going to look the way they did in the halcyon days. It’s something that will need to be addressed by necessity.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.