Daytona. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. A win to be in.
Well, that is what many were hoping for Saturday night. Junior led from the pole, was sitting up near the front, and finished only behind Brad Keselowski when the opening stage came to a conclusion. No problem. He was contending and that was good enough for the moment.
Sadly, rather than a presentation of The Greatest Story Ever Told, a flat tire and some grinding work against the fence made it more like the Life of Brian. Earnhardt, who is retiring from full-time racing after this season, still walked among us, just a couple of laps behind where his fans had hoped he might be.
It could have been worse. Kyle Busch had a tire go down, wiggled briefly in front of his brother, then found himself in the middle of a crap storm. By the time the cars quit hitting each other and the wall, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, and Austin Dillon were among them with time on their hands. Kyle may have departed, but at least Kurt Busch was left on the track, if that was any consolation.
The only constant was that nothing was constant. You had the feeling that when they began the final half of the 400-mile journey, everyone had a shot at it. Well, everyone not already beaten to a pulp. Maybe Ryan Blaney would win again. Maybe Chase Elliott would claim his first. If either was to come to pass, they had their work cut out for them. With 155 miles left, Chase Elliott got turned, went across in front of Blaney, and the pair went on a tear through the grass. They were bowed, though not yet beaten.
Remember Earnhardt? When they went back under green, he was 16th and back on the lead lap. Did the man whose career from 2001 to 2004 read like sensationalized fiction have one more fairytale ending in his library? With 140 miles left, Junior was back in the Top Ten as Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson took over the lead.
Then it happened. You know how Cinderella ends? Pretty sweet, eh? Well, in this version, Kevin Harvick lost a tire, spun in front of Earnhardt, and it was pumpkin pie for them both. Others spun, but Happy and Dale were the pair that were done.
Maybe Clint Bowyer was going to lock his spot in the Chase. He trailed only Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with a hundred miles remaining, which is when Keselowski checked out of this one. Tire went down, the nose inhaled the wall, and as he headed to the garage, the two leaders headed to the pits. Good time as any for a much-needed fuel stop. We might have known who was not going to win at this time, but the identity of the winner was still a total mystery. Maybe this is why Daytona races are a joy to watch.
Sixty miles to go. The top four all looking for a win to vault ahead into a Chase place. Daniel Suarez was followed by Kasey Kahne. Bowyer and Matt Kenseth were in on points, but barely, and that would be in jeopardy if either of those first two claimed this thing. David Ragan, Erik Jones and Paul Menard all desperately need a win, and all were in the mix as the laps counted down. I tell you, it was pretty darn hard to sneak away to get that final cold one the way they were racing.
With 35 miles to go the winless Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger, and Ty Dillon had moved up to join the others hoping for a season-defining result among the top dozen. Daddy’s adult pop was still calling, but I was still not moving. Incredible action.
Twelve miles left, and still, we had no idea who would win. We did get a definite idea of who else would not. Kyle Larson got hooked by Stenhouse and went airborne. It was a Days of Thunder conclusion for him and Kenseth, as Blaney had his straw house blown down. As for Kurt, he managed to avoid an accident earlier, only to find that fate was just waiting to claim his auto.
Eight laps left. Every lap an exciting one, but the only one that was going to matter in the end was the one that ended it. That lap would come in overtime, and while Menard, Bowyer, and Michael McDowell were second through fourth, it was Stenhouse coming home for his second victory of the season. He was a heart-breaker, especially when you consider that, other than Ryan Newman in fifth, the rest of the top 11 Saturday night remain winless on the season.
Most entertaining race of the year. If you are hoping for another possible Earnhardt storyline in Kentucky next Saturday night, you should expect to be disappointed. In six previous events held at that venue, the winners have gone by such names as Keselowski (3), Rowdy (2), and Kenseth. That is all.
Now I can go get that frosty beverage.