Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

MORGAN: Five Takeaways from the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona provided action and excitement from beginning to end, culminating in Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. scoring his second win of the season. Along with Stenhouse’s win, there were some other storylines leaving the World Center of Racing.

Making Mississippi Proud

With his second win of the season and second in as many restrictor plate races, Stenhouse becomes the fifth driver to obtain multiple wins this season, giving himself some added insurance for the playoffs.

While some might have listed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Brad Keselowski as the favorites entering the night, it was Stenhouse that came out on top in the end, making a case that he is the new restrictor plate master.

Starting sixth, Stenhouse was the only driver that started in the top-10 and finished the night there as well.

The Olive Branch, Mississippi native led four times for 17 laps and even had to avoid the airborne car of Kyle Larson en route to victory lane and Saturday night’s win now makes him the all-time NASCAR wins leader in the state’s history, breaking his tie with Lake Speed.

“Wow, these guys,” said Stenhouse. “I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one. They build the Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. We won the Firecracker 400! This is awesome! I have been coming here since 2008. I actually came in 2006 one time with Bobby Hamilton Jr. and it is cool to put it in victory lane and get our second win this year. I love it! Thank you to the fans for coming out here. Everyone at NASCAR. What a great weekend.”

“This validates what we did at Talladega. I want to first off thank all the troops that have fallen for our country, for our freedom. That is most important right now. Thank the good Lord for letting me come out here and do what I do for a living and work with this great group of guys. We have been working hard at Roush Fenway and this pushes us further along. Fifth Third, Fastenal, Sunny D, Little Hug Fruit Barrels, This Ford Performance team has been amazing. Ford has been dominant. Roush Yates Engines and Doug Yates. I told him to bring his daughter in here because she is my biggest fan and I told her I would meet her in victory lane. I had a 4th of July party planned but it just got a little bit bigger.”

Restrictor Plate Carnage

Saturday night’s race featured 14 cautions, marking a new record for the July Daytona race and the second most all-time at the track. With drivers being aggressive throughout the night and contact leading to cut tires, teams were dropping like flies throughout the night, taking several big-name drivers out of contention for the win.

Six of the 14 cautions were multi-car incidents, ending the night early for drivers like Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex, Jr., Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Darrell Wallace, Jr., and Denny Hamlin.

Several of these drivers have yet to win this year, so getting taken out in a crash at Daytona was another setback in their efforts to make the playoffs.

“I’m always in the wreck,” said Truex. “I’ve never caused them either, so that’s the part that hurts the most. It’s the toughest part to deal with. It’s just plate racing. It’s not been good to us. Especially in July for whatever reason. It is what it is. We’ll go home and go to work. Look forward to some really good tracks coming up for us.”

Underdogs Aplenty

With several of the big names out of contention, the door was wide open for the underdog drivers to end the night with their best finishes of the year.

Late in the going, the entire top-10 was made up of drivers that had either never won a race or had not won yet in 2017, which could have thrown another wrench in the makeup of the playoff field had they ended the night in victory lane.

Though Stenhouse won his second race of the season, underdog drivers still were prominently featured in the top-11, with drivers like Michael McDowell finishing fourth, David Ragan finishing sixth, Brendan Gaughan in seventh, and Corey Lajoie in 11th.

For all four drivers, their finishes in Saturday night’s race were their best of the season and for some, the best finishes of their career.

“It was a great run for us,” said McDowell. “Really building off the Daytona 500 where we were in the top-five and ran out of gas. We really had a fast car. The boys did a great job. It wasn’t without trouble. We were around a lot of the carnage out there.  There was just a lot of hard racing out there tonight. Three-wide, bumper-to-bumper all night long. It is great to have a top-five. Really excited about that. Coming to the white, I thought I might have had a shot at it. But Ricky and I were just too far out and those cars behind us had a big run. Very thankful for the opportunity.”

“We have great people.  They are relentless. They work hard. Everybody back at the shop. ECR power under the hood, that helps.”

Storybook Ending Not to Be

At a track where he had triumphed 17 times over the course of his career, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came into Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona looking to put some of his restrictor plate magic to good use and try to win one more time on the 2.5-mile track, but the stars just didn’t align for Earnhardt as two crashes would relegate him to a 32nd place finish.

After two straight top-10 finishes in the races leading into Daytona, followed up by a pole run on Friday afternoon, Earnhardt and his No. 88 team were full of confidence that Saturday night could finally be the night they put their bad luck from this season behind them and conquer Daytona in what should be his final race at the track as a full-time driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Earnhardt got into the Turn 1 wall midway through Stage 2, losing two laps in the process of getting the damage fixed, but powered right back into the top-10 by lap 100, giving Junior Nation some hope that a win might still be possible despite all that had happened earlier in the race.

However, the storybook ending came to a crashing halt on lap 105 when Kevin Harvick cut a tire down in front of him in Turn 2, collecting Earnhardt and two others in the melee.

“As soon as we got our lap back, I knew anything was possible,” said Earnhardt. “We were just kind of drafting right back up there and I think the No, 4 (Kevin Harvick) got a flat. I had nowhere to go, but it was fun. We had a pretty strong car. We had some gremlins in there; I’m not sure what was going on with that, but we had the toe-in messed up.”

“I wish we had had a good finish tonight if not a win. We were working up in there and having a good time and being aggressive and wearing out the sides of that race car.  It just wasn’t to be.”

Still without a win in 2017 and sitting too far down in points to be able to point his way into the playoffs, the hopes of Earnhardt making the playoffs keep growing dimmer as the regular season continues to wind down. At this point, the remainder of the regular season is win or go home for Earnhardt being able to have a shot at the postseason and a possible title in his final season.

The Clock’s Ticking

With Stenhouse winning his second race on Saturday night, there are now just nine races remaining in the regular season and only six playoff spots still up for grabs, given that we have had 10 winners so far in 2017.

Several big-name drivers are still without a win, including the entire Joe Gibbs Racing stable, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, and Earnhardt. Not to mention Joey Logano, whose encumbered win at Richmond looms larger and larger as the playoffs draw nearer.

Could we see some of these drivers miss out on the playoffs? That is becoming an even greater possibility as the regular season draws to a close, especially if we see another driver score their first win or someone unexpected sneaks in and wins a race. Needless to say, these drivers need to get on it or risk finding themselves on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin.

The clock’s ticking. Let’s see what you’ve got.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.