The July Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway felt like a demolition derby. The Big One happened less then 60 laps into the race, turning half the field into a glorified junkyard. In all, just 20 cars finished the night, only 13 of those on the lead lap while maybe two or three cars survived without a scratch.
It was a recipe tailor-made for an upset. But still, the Fab Foursome of Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, the drivers who have swept all the non-restrictor plate races this season, nearly stole the show. While Busch got wrecked early, it was Truex, Bowyer and Harvick who were 1-2-3 at one point down the stretch, flashing speed in a pack full of crumpled sheet metal.
The No. 78 run by Truex, who had never won Daytona, led 20 laps and actually was in front at the green-white-checkered restart. It took a phenomenal move from Erik Jones, whose car had come back from a lap behind, to blow by Truex and hold on for his first career MENCS victory. Jones got a little interference from Kasey Kahne, a former Hendrick Motorsports driver-turned-underdog, in Leavine Family Racing’s car that held on to finish a strong fourth.
Could you imagine if one of the four dominant drivers stole the show in a plate race? As it is, they’re back up front for Saturday night’s race at Kentucky. Truex, last year’s winner is on the pole while all members of this Fab Foursome have qualified inside the top eight.
But that Daytona ending, in which one of the sport’s 20-something drivers rose to victory, gives hope another first-time 2018 winner will pop up Saturday night. Brad Keselowski, who starts fourth, is your best bet; he’s won three times in seven starts at this track. Teammate Ryan Blaney starts inside the top 10 and has led 463 laps, more than any driver this season without a win. Both drivers had disappointing days last weekend, but Blaney got the worst of it. He went from leading the most laps in February’s Daytona 500 to finishing dead last in the July race.
Kentucky, only added to the Cup schedule in 2011, is still new enough for some unpredictability. Keselowski and Kyle Busch have combined to win five of seven races here but a repave has scrambled some of those notes from the past. As NASCAR kicks off its second half, this race could present as an opportunity for other drivers to come to the forefront.
8th Quaker State 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Kentucky Speedway (Sparta, Ky.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Erik Jones
Jones led just one lap at Daytona but it was the one that counted: the last lap. He follows Austin Dillon’s example; this year’s Daytona 500 winner didn’t even take the lead until contact with Aric Almirola on the backstretch a half-lap from the checkered flag.
But Jones now has a monkey off his back after an inconsistent season replacing Matt Kenseth at the helm of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota. Without that victory protection, he would sit just 44 points above the playoff cutline with eight races remaining in the regular season. Now, Jones can get aggressive for wins as he attempts to flash the speed produced by front-running teammate Kyle Busch.
Already, the momentum has translated on the racetrack. Jones starts second at Kentucky, his best qualifying effort of the year.
Who’s at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse led 51 laps, the most of any driver at Daytona. But the defending winner of the race was at the center of controversy after his front bumper started two of the night’s big wrecks. Kyle Busch went ballistic on the radio after one of them, following up his criticism with comments in the media center Friday.
“You wipe out half the field, and I’m pretty sure there would be a pretty busy Monday for [Stenhouse], but there wasn’t,” he said. “Apparently, he just doesn’t care.”
Busch and Stenhouse then had a little confrontation on the grid prior to Kentucky qualifying in which Stenhouse warned Busch to quit “running his mouth.” Is there a new rivalry developing in the Cup Series?
Sort of. It’s clear there’s no love lost between the two but they’re running in different stratospheres. While Busch is up front most weeks Stenhouse is simply fighting for a playoff spot. His disappointing 17th-place effort at Daytona leaves him 19 points behind Alex Bowman for a place on the 16-man grid. Outside of Bristol and Talladega, in fact, Stenhouse has run no better than 10th all year.
So if these two get close to each other at Kentucky, it’s Busch trying to put Stenhouse a lap down -- not fighting for the lead. But if the No. 17 has another “mistake” in front of Busch Saturday night, we’ll know why...
Mountain Dew announced this week they’ll continue to back Chase Elliott while remaining a part of Hendrick Motorsports over the long-term. Elliott will carry the brand for four races as a primary sponsor each year through the 2020 MENCS season. So knock that off the list as a potential full-time backer for Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time series champion whose 2019 funding remains the biggest question mark of NASCAR Silly Season.
The trustee for BK Racing claims a number of bidders have stepped up as the sale of the team accelerates.Bankruptcy court has set Aug. 21 as a date for a potential buyer to be approved. NASCAR would then have to accept the bid in order for the charter to get transferred over to new ownership. The No. 23 Toyota, of course, has been in flux all season after former owner Ron Devine’s financial problems cost him the team. So who could be in line to buy? NY Racing is likely one such bidder, running a BK Racing partnership with driver JJ Yeley again this weekend with sponsorship from Steakhouse Elite.
Eldora driver announcements for the Camping World Truck Series keep piling up.The most notable include Ryan Newman, running Jordan Anderson’struck in a one-race deal as the Cup Series driver tries to add a NASCAR dirt win to his resume. ARCA Series point leader Sheldon Creed also is running with the No. 99 of MDM Motorsports.
NASCAR by the Numbers
First-time Cup Series winners this decade whose victories have come at Daytona. They are Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500), David Ragan (2011 July race), Aric Almirola (2014 July race), and Erik Jones Saturday night.
DNFs in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 last weekend, a series high for 2018.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, as mentioned above have won five of the last seven races at Kentucky. But pole sitter Martin Truex Jr. is no slouch. He’s the defending race winner of this event and has led 198 laps here the last two years. Add in his 2018 success and it’s hard to bet against the No. 78.
Even-numbered years have been good to Ryan Newman at Kentucky. Third in both 2014 and '16, he starts 10th tonight with a Richard Childress Racing team that’s occasionally surprised on 1.5-mile tracks. Remember when Newman sat on the outside pole at Atlanta? There’s enough speed here a top-10 Kentucky finish is a strong possibility.
Jimmie Johnson hasn’t shown much speed this weekend; in fact, he starts 27th. But the No. 48 team has been on an upward trend as of late and registered five straight top-10 finishes here from 2011-15. Two crashes have wrecked their average finish but I don’t think bad luck will come in threes this time. Keep in mind for some formats, a jump from 27th to, say, 10th will give you bonus points in some leagues over a guy who started 13th and finishes 11th.
Paul Menard, once again offers a value pick at a 1.5-mile track. Starting sixth with the Wood Brothers, his last four finishes here have registered between 15th and 21st. If Menard finishes 15th again, that’s well worth the money for what he’ll cost in a daily fantasy lineup.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick has the best odds at press time with 5/2 followed by pole sitter Martin Truex Jr. at 3/1.
What I Think
I’ll go outside the box. Erik Jones, starting second, propels that Daytona momentum into a surprising second straight Cup Series victory. If not? I’d go same old, same old with a temperamental Kyle Busch taking control of the race. An angry Kyle is often a winning Kyle.
-- Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)