DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A night that saw half the 40-car field eliminated by crashes, presented opportunities for other drivers Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
The result was a list of superlatives for drivers and team that often aren’t in the spotlight.
The highlights for those teams and drivers:
# Kasey Kahne matched the career-best finish for Leavine Family Racing with his fourth-place performance
# Both JTG Daugherty Racing cars finished in the top five for the first time. AJ Allmendinger placed third and Chris Buescher was fifth. Allmendinger’s result was his fourth consecutive top-10 finish at Daytona, the longest active streak.
# Matt DiBenedetto’s seventh-place finish was his fourth career top 10 in 122 starts.
# Jeffrey Earnhardt finished a career-best 11th.
# DJ Kennington finished a career-best 13th.
DiBenedetto’s best finish this season before Saturday was 16th. He scored the top 10 despite being collected in the 26-car crash that brought out the caution on Lap 55.
“I guess that was probably one of the craziest races I’ve ever taken part in,” he said. “I’m glad we survived and we seem to always position ourselves in a spot to be up front and competing for the win at the end of these speedway races at Daytona quite often.”
Kahne was thrilled with his run. His best finish this year before Saturday’s race was 17th.
“It was a strong car, really strong car,” he said. “The guys did a great job and we were able to avoid wrecks. I knew in the second stage we had a car capable to win if things went right. We were there from that point on.”
On the final restart, Kahne didn’t have anyone pushing him but the cars in front were stalled out as they ran side by side and Kahne got a run on Martin Truex Jr.
“I got past him and he just hung on my left rear corner off of Turn 2 and side drafted me, sucked me back down half the straightaway,” Kahne said. “We had such a gap on (winner Erik Jones) that he had a huge run on us at that point. I tried to block a little but he was going where I wasn’t and got by.”
Allmendinger had to overcome challenges throughout the race.
“You know, tonight was strange,” said Allmendinger, whose best finish this season before Saturday was eighth at Martinsville. “Tried to ride at the back early on, and still got wrecked and had a lot of damage on the left rear of the race car, so my guys did a good job to fix it good enough. Heck, I probably missed another seven wrecks after that. It was just kind of chaos out there.
“You know, it was a little bit of survival, and there at the end it was just trying to make the right moves. With that damage on the left side of the race car, it put a lot of drag in it, so I didn’t really know if we had a great shot to win it. I knew my only shot was going to be off of Turn 4 and try to make the right move. Going down into (Turn) 3, Martin was battling with Erik there and made a move and tried to push Martin and obviously get as much as I could, and we salvaged a great result out of it.”
Buescher, his teammate, also was in contention on the last restart.
“Glad we were able to push Erik out there and at least help him get his first Cup win, that’s pretty cool,” said Buescher, whose result matched his season-high of fifth in the Daytona 500. “Pretty wild race. It was a good points night for us. Pit crew did excellent. We put all the puzzle pieces together and stayed out of trouble. That was a big part of it.”
Earnhardt was excited about his night.
“Just proud of all these guys,” he said. “Nine Line Foundation, Black Rifle Coffee, Extreme Concepts – they are the reason I am here with the cause that they are trying to push and its just an honor to get to be a part of it. It’s an incredible company and they support our country, our military and all of our veterans. I am so happy I got them a good run.
“Everyone kept asking me what it means to come here with the Earnhardt name at Daytona, and it does mean a lot, don’t get me wrong. But to show support to our veterans and be a part of what the foundation is doing … that meant more to me than anything tonight. Proud of all the guys at Premium in giving me a good car tonight and keeping the car in one piece. It’s my best career finish in the Cup series, so hopefully this will lead to some more sponsorship and get me back out here on the track more often.”