Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the 59th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, his second career victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and first at the “World Center of Racing.”
Stenhouse, driving the No. 17 Fifth Third Bank Ford Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing, has now won two of the season’s first three restrictor-plate races; he got his first Monster Energy Series victory earlier this season at Talladega Superspeedway. Prior to that breakthrough, Stenhouse had gone 157 races without a victory; now he has won twice in the last eight events.
“This validates what we did at Talladega,” Stenhouse said. “This just keeps pushing us farther and farther along.”
The race required “NASCAR Overtime,” which pushed the race to 163 laps, three laps beyond the scheduled 160-lap/400-mile distance. In the OT, Stenhouse cagily outraced runner-up Clint Bowyer (No. 14 Mobil 1 Ford Fusion), winning by .0213 seconds. Paul Menard (No. 27 Moen/Menards Chevrolet SS) finished third.
“He’s got [restrictor-plate racing] figured out; he used to be sort of chaotic,” Bowyer said of Stenhouse.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s highly anticipated, final DIS start in the Monster Energy Series provided early excitement as he started from the pole and challenged for the lead in search of a historic high-banked send-off. On Lap 52, though, contact with Menard sent Earnhardt (No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS) into the wall in Turn 1. Right-side damage to sheet metal and tires forced a lengthy pit stop which put Earnhardt two laps down – and seemingly out of contention.
But … not so fast. Earnhardt managed to get back on the lead lap thanks to being the beneficiary on two caution periods – getting a lap back each time, because he was the highest-scored competitor not on the lead lap. Remarkably, he rebounded to get as high as sixth but was involved in another accident on Lap 106, this one involving four cars, and limped home to a 32nd-place finish.
Reigning DAYTONA 500 champion Kurt Busch (No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford) saw his own shot at history escape his grasp, as he sought to become the sixth driver to win both the DAYTONA 500 and Coke Zero 400 in the same season. Busch started 15th – and finished 28th after being involved in a Lap 153 incident.
The race was divided into three stages – 40, 40 and 80 laps – with stage winners earning valuable bonus “playoff points” that carry through to the Monster Energy Series’ 10-race playoffs that end the season.
Stage 1 was won by the defending Coke Zero 400 champion Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Detroit Genuine Parts Ford) with Earnhardt finishing second. Matt Kenseth (No. 20 DEWALT Flexvolt Toyota) won Stage 2, edging Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota).
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