DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Daytona 500’s recent history of late-race crashes deciding the winner continued Sunday, and this time there was an unlikely winner — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse, whose best previous finish in the 500 was seventh, was in front on the final lap in overtime when a multi-car wreck developed behind him, prompting a caution flag and writing a finish to the race. After the field takes the white flag in a green-white-checkered finish and a caution flag flies, the leader at that moment is declared the winner.
That leader this time was Stenhouse, the pride of Olive Branch, Mississippi. A solid short-track racer, Stenhouse’s journey in Cup has been generally disappointing, but on this Sunday he drove through crashes and into the promised land.
And he wasn’t the only unusual visitor to victory lane. Stenhouse, 35, put JTG-Daugherty Racing, one of NASCAR’s smallest teams, in stock car racing’s biggest throne room for the first time. The single-car Chevrolet team is owned by Tad and Jodi Geschickter and former National Basketball Association player Brad Daugherty. The team’s only previous Cup victory was scored by AJ Allmendinger on the Watkins Glen road course in 2014.
MORE: Daytona race results, point standings
MORE: What drivers said about the Daytona 500
“The whole offseason (crew chief Mike Kelley) preached how we all believe in each other,” Stenhouse told Fox Sports. “I made a few mistakes, but we were able to battle back. We had great pit stops, and we got it done — the Daytona 500.”
Mike Kelley, Stenhouse’s crew chief, used a piece of duct tape to leave a message — We Believe — on the roll bar in the team’s No. 47 car before the race.
“I want to get people to believe in Ricky Stenhouse and in me again,” Kelley said. “We’re a small team, not a powerhouse team.” The series’ leading teams have hundreds of employees; JTG-Daugherty has less than 50.
Kelley noted that NASCAR delivers frequent messages to teams about post-race plans following victories. “I’m going to be so drunk you’re going to have to tell me again,” Kelley said.
The victory was Stenhouse’s third in the Cup Series. The previous victories came in the 2017 season at Talladega Superspeedway and in Daytona’s summer race. He was driving then for team owner Jack Roush.
Stenhouse said the team’s improvement is a result of more offseason time in simulators, more support from Chevrolet and a new focus from Kelley, who started at JTG at the end of last season.
“This is huge for us,” he said, “but I’m super-excited to get to Fontana and Las Vegas (for the second and third races). We were so far off last year, but I feel like we’re going to be better.”
The elongated finish, one so similar to most recent Daytona 500s as a chain of accidents settled the issue, was set up when Daniel Suarez slid off the track with two laps to go, causing a caution and restacking the field.
Richard Childress Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon had drafted past leader Brad Keselowski and his teammate and drafting partner, Chris Buescher, a lap earlier and were charging toward the finish when the caution slowed the field and led to overtime. Keselowski and Buescher appeared to have the race under control for long stretches, Keselowski leading 42 laps (best of the day) and Buescher leading 32. Twenty-one drivers led at least one lap.
Busch and Dillon had the lead at the restart, but Busch and Dillon swept past them to move in front. Then Stenhouse and Kyle Larson paired together to draft into the lead. Before the field could take the white flag, however, a multi-car crash developed behind the leaders, sending numerous drivers, including Harrison Burton and Jimmie Johnson, into spins.
That set up a second green-white-checkered attempt, with Stenhouse starting first, Larson second, Christopher Bell third and Joey Logano fourth. AJ Allmendinger was fifth and Busch sixth. Stenhouse burst to the front at the restart and held off a charging Logano. The final wreck, sparked when Aric Almirola, Travis Pastrana and Larson crashed in the wake of the leaders, locked up the win for Stenhouse.
Stenhouse was ahead of Logano when the caution lights came on. Logano finished second, followed by Bell, Buescher and Alex Bowman.
Logano had a strong race but was disappointed to miss a shot at winning.
“Second is the worst, man,” he said. “You think you’re racing to the checkered flag, and you put yourself in the best position to try to win at the start-finish line, and just caution came out — you wish you could race to the end. Obviously, you can’t when they wreck that much.”
A late-race sequence of pit stops — from laps 176-180 (of 200) — spread the field and led to a major multi-car accident with 19 laps remaining. As drivers tried to close gaps and return to single- and double-file racing after the round of pit stops, a crash damaged the cars of Ryan Preece, Martin Truex Jr., Michael McDowell and Kevin Harvick.
The chaos of that crash left Burton in the race lead.
Busch, driving in his first regular season race for Richard Childress Racing, lost a lap near the halfway point of the race when he was flagged for speeding on pit road but rallied to be in the mix near the finish.
A Turn 4 accident on lap damaged the cars of Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick. The incident began when Kevin Harvick bumped Reddick in the outside lane, causing Reddick to lose control, slap the outside wall and come down the track into traffic.
The accident caused the first on-track caution of the race. Elliott, Jones and Reddick parked their cars. Several other cars received minor damage.
The string of late-race accidents stretched the race to 530 miles, the longest 500 ever.
The 500 victory was a rarity — one scored by a female car owner (Jodi Geschickter) and a Black car owner (Daugherty). Daugherty missed the race because of recent surgery. Jodi Geschickter said she talked via phone to Daugherty after the race. “He said he and Michael Jordan (co-owner of 23XI Racing) are already talking trash,” she said.
Stage 1 winner: Brad Keselowski
Stage 2 winner: Ross Chastain
Who had a good race: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had the right car and the right set of nerves in overtime and finally checked the 500 on his to-do list. He led only 10 laps — the final 10. … Action sports star Travis Pastrana, racing in the Cup Series for the first time, finished 11th. … Kyle Busch was a serious contender for the win in his first ride with Richard Childress Racing. … Riley Herbst finished a surprising 10th.
Who had a bad race: Chase Elliott, still seeking his first Daytona 500 win, left the race after a lap 117 crash. Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones parked after the same incident. … Ryan Preece ran a strong race but was enveloped in the lap 181 crash. … Three-time 500 winner Denny Hamlin led six laps but was not a factor at the end. He finished 17th.
Next: The Cup Series’ next race is scheduled Feb. 26 at Auto Club Speedway in California.