In America, Independence Day is a long-celebrated holiday, consisting of barbecues, fireworks and other festivities. One such tradition is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Coke Zero 400, held on Saturday at the famed Daytona International Speedway. The event has been a mainstay of the NASCAR calendar since the track’s opening in 1959, while the patriotic atmosphere is as unwavering as the resolve in American troops when they won their independence over two centuries prior. The race proved to be a wild one, featuring a race-high 14 cautions and many new faces battling for the victory. In the end, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was able to claim his second career Cup Series victory.
Like May’s Coca-Cola 600, the Coke Zero 400 saw the return of the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola program. For the Xfinity Series’ Coca-Cola Firecracker 250, all cars replaced the Xfinity banner atop their windshields with the names of American military units and installations, such as Cole Custer with the Marine Corps Installations Pacific (MCIPAC) and race winner William Byron with the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. For some drivers, their banner’s unit was connected to them: Brennan Poole’s windshield banner was adorned with the name of the 310th Mountain Division, 1st Brigade Combat Team, for whom team engineer Katelyn Supan’s brother serves.
Various drivers drove patriotic schemes during their respective races. For the Xfinity race, Justin Allgaier’s car featured the stars and stripes of the American flag, while Ryan Reed’s #16 featured red digital camouflage. For the Cup race later in the day, Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson’s cars were all patterned after the flag.
For Cup pre-race festivities, the Florida Army National Guard Color Guard presented the American and Florida flags, while the Navy Band Southeast performed the national anthem and Northrop F-5s from the VFC-111 Sundowners squadron at the nearby Naval Air Station Key West, Florida flew over the track. Three Medal of Honor recipients – Navy Captain Thomas Kelly, Army Command Sergeant Major Gary Littrell and Army Colonel Walter Joseph Marm – were honored following the flyover, while former Navy Captain Bob Buehn and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Army General Wesley Clark were the grand marshals for the Xfinity and Cup races, respectively. During pace laps, the cars entered pit road for a final salute to the troops; servicemen and pit crews flanked the drivers, the former standing along the infield and the latter holding American flags on the pit wall.
“This is a special weekend,” Brad Keselowski commented. Keselowski, who honors the military after each win by celebrating with an American flag, also operates the Checkered Flag Foundation, which provides support to veterans and first responders. “I think if you look back at the history of the sport, it was really created by people who came home from World War II and love thrill-seeking, love motorsports and put this sport together. There’s always been a deep connection between the military and NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., running his final race at Daytona, started on the pole alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott. Elliott led the first laps, while Earnhardt fell to 4th. Keselowski, pushed by fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick, took the lead on lap five.
The first caution came out on lap nine when Ryan Sieg and Cole Whitt blew their engines, forcing their retirements from the race. Despite the green flag waving on lap 13, it was short-lived as D.J. Kennington also suffered an engine failure on lap 16, spinning in the process to bring out a second caution; the yellow flag also waved off the competition caution scheduled for lap 20. To add to the chaos, Denny Hamlin pitted immediately after the restart on lap 13 for a loose lug nut.
The next restart took place on lap 20 with Keselowski as the leader. He led until Harvick passed him ten laps later, with the two exchanging the lead over the next seven laps. Keselowski finally held off Harvick for 1st on lap 37 and went on to win his third stage of the season. Earnhardt, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan rounded out the top-10.
During pit stops prior to Stage #2, Keselowski and Earnhardt collided on pit road, sustaining minor damage. Blaney missed his pit stall, but took no tires and won the race off pit road. Erik Jones and Hamlin, who pitted before the end of Stage #1, led the field to the start of Stage #2 on lap 47. Shortly after, Kyle Larson attempted to go four-wide, but made contact with Daniel Suárez, who avoided the wreck along with McDowell by driving onto pit road; Larson was forced to pit to repair the damage.
On lap 51, Earnhardt felt a right-rear tire go down in the tri-oval and lifted off the throttle. However, Paul Menard collided with him and sent him into the wall, prompting him to report to pit road two laps later. On lap 58, Jeffrey Earnhardt retired from the race for a blown engine, producing another caution.
Hamlin led the grid to the restart on lap 64, though Matt Kenseth passed him four laps later. Trevor Bayne also led laps on lap 69. Two laps later, Kyle Busch had a tire go down in front of his brother Kurt, turning him in front of the field and collecting Truex, Austin Dillon, Logano, Larson, McMurray, Patrick and Menard. The green flag waved once again on lap 77 with Kenseth going on to win the stage. Behind him were Hamlin, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ragan, Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Ty Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Blaney.
Harvick and Stenhouse comprised the front row for the start of Stage #3 on lap 86. Stenhouse, receiving assistance from his Roush Fenway teammate Bayne, took the lead from Harvick moments later. On lap 91, Brendan Gaughan hit the wall and cut his right-front tire to bring out the yellow flag. Stenhouse and Harvick elected to pit, while Suárez stayed out to become the leader for the lap 95 restart. Three laps after the green flag, Elliott went high and was clipped by McDowell, spinning him down into Bayne for yet another caution.
Suárez remained the leader when the green flag waved on lap 102. A lap later, Johnson forced three-wide and took the lead. On lap 106, Harvick spun in front of Earnhardt, who had worked his way up to 7th, also claiming the #2 of Keselowski. Earnhardt was later forced to exit the race, ending his final scheduled Cup points race at Daytona with a 32nd-place finish.
“It was fun,” Earnhardt stated. “We had a pretty strong car, we had the toe end mess up. That first deal, we brushed the wall a couple laps earlier and I thought everything was okay and then I cut through the tri-oval and had a right front going down and I was trying to spin out. I was trying to lift and, really, nothing I could do because somebody’s behind me and we got into (turn) one and hit the wall.
“But the guys worked on the car, we got our laps back, was about to have some more fun, get back in there and mix it up, and that happened with the 4. It’s been a wild night, I didn’t anticipate this much action and this much torn-up sheet metal, but there’s still a lot of racing left.”
The green flag waved on lap 111 with Stenhouse and Bowyer leading the pack. On lap 118, Keselowski had a tire goes down, causing his car to slide up the banking and hit the outside wall for another caution period. Kenseth and Ty Dillon took the lead for the next green flag on lap 121, which did not last long as Kahne was turned by Ragan exiting turn two, causing him to spin into the infield.
Another attempt at a green flag took place on lap 125, this time with Kenseth and Jones leading. Two laps later, Blaney took the lead. Another two laps later, the yellow flag waved for Matt DiBenedetto, who blew a left-front tire while running in 9th. The next restart occurred on lap 133, with Blaney and Kenseth at the front. On lap 136, Stenhouse took the lead, but was quickly passed by Suárez on the faster outside line. Dropping to the inside, Blaney began to fall out, eventually settling in 21st.
Kahne and Suárez began to battle for the lead, trading 1st-place as the laps wound down. Although the #5 of Kahne led with 20 laps to go, Stenhouse took the position nine laps later. After two laps, Ty Dillon, receiving a push from Larson, pulled into 1st. However, Larson’s day ended in spectacular fashion with seven laps left; he was turned by Stenhouse and hit the tri-oval wall, causing him to go airborne in a manner similar to his wreck at the 2013 DRIVE4COPD 300 Nationwide (now Xfinity) race at the track, while Blaney drove into him. Upon landing, Larson dropped to the apron, where he was hit by Kenseth. Behind them, Kurt Busch was hit by Wallace and went around, slamming into the outside wall. Further back, Patrick slid into the grass, while McMurray avoided the carnage by pulling onto pit road. The ensuing wreck led to a red flag.
After 11 minutes under the red flag, NASCAR changed to the yellow flag. Ty Dillon and Ragan held the top two positions for the restart with three laps to go. Shortly after the leaders entered the backstretch, Jones, who was running in 10th, was hit by McMurray and spun into the grass. Hamlin also spun, damaging his radiator and causing his #11 car to catch fire. The resulting caution sparked an overtime situation.
The overtime restart was held on lap 161. Ragan led early, but Stenhouse passed him on the inside line during the lap. With a caution-free restart, Stenhouse held off Menard to lead the final two laps to win his second race of the season. Bowyer finished 2nd for his second consecutive runner-up finish. Menard’s 3rd-place finish was his best since a 9th-place run at February’s Daytona 500. McDowell finished 4th for his and Leavine Family Racing’s best runs in the Cup Series. Newman finished 5th, followed by Ragan recording his first top-10 since Talladega in May. Brendan Gaughan, who ran the Xfinity race earlier in the day, finished 7th for his first top-10 in the Cup Series since the 2004 Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A.J. Allmendinger finished 7th, his first top-10 since Martinsville in April, followed by Jones and Chris Buescher, the latter enjoying his first top-10 of the 2017 season.
After a 157-race winless streak, Stenhouse has won two of the last eight races. It is also Roush Fenway Racing’s first victory in the race since Ragan triumphed in 2011 and the first for the team at Daytona since Kenseth won the 2012 Daytona 500.
“It’s tough out there. I left the bottom open for the 13 and I thought I gave the race away there,” Stenhouse said. “But these guys… I kept my Talladega car (the one used in his first win in May) and told them to build a new one. They built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. We won the Firecracker 400, man, that’s awesome!
“America 1776, we are the champions!”
Next week, the Cup Series travels to Sparta, Kentucky, for the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Keselowski is the defending race winner.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @DISupdates