NASCAR wanted a random, crazy outcome to decide the regular Cup season and that's precisely what happened in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
After the smoke cleared from a multi-car wreck on the final lap, Ryan Blaney rose victorious.
Blaney backed up his first multiple-win season in the Cup Series with more career-firsts—consecutive victories, a Daytona trophy and five top-five finishes in his last six starts.
“It was wild,” Blaney said. “We missed that big one—barely. I don’t know how we missed it and then we got a restart on the front row and it was kind of a drag race. I’m really thankful to (Corey) LaJoie, who gave me a really good push and we were able to get clear on the restart, so I appreciate the push from him.
“It was a very eventful race. It’s so cool to be here in victory lane in Daytona. Maybe we’re on a roll right now and we’ve got everything going our way. Hopefully, we keep it up.”
Chris Buescher finished second but was disqualified after NASCAR officials discovered the track bar assembly on the No. 17 Ford did not conform to specifications. Consequently, Bubba Wallace moved up to second and tied his career-best finish. Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece, Tyler Reddick, Justin Haley, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, BJ McLeod and Josh Bilicki rounded out the top 10.
Blaney vaulted to second in the point standings entering the Playoffs. Kyle Larson overcame a 144-point deficit over the last 14 races to finish 18 points ahead of Denny Hamlin and win the regular-season championship.
“Our team has worked so hard all of the regular season,” Larson said. “I couldn’t do it without Mr. Hendrick and Linda (Hendrick) and all of their support. Everybody back at the shop, too. This is a long season and we still have 10 races to go."
The drama began early between Larson and Hamlin. After multiple pre-race inspection failures, Larson started from the rear of the field. Hamlin developed a vibration after contact with Ross Chastain on Lap 15. When the leaders pitted for fuel on Lap 22 during the Competition Caution, Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch’s entry into his pit box. Busch was forced to run another lap before service.
Elliott shot out to an early lead after the Lap 26 restart but his progress was slowed by debris on his grille. He turned over the point to Joey Logano but claimed the lead again on Lap 44 and held on for the stage win.
In the second stage, Martin Truex Jr. emerged as the frontrunner before debris forced the No. 19 Toyota to relinquish the lead to Christopher Bell on Lap 70. Seven laps later, Logano returned to the point but on the next circuit, Reddick tagged LaJoie. Ryan Preece slowed to miss the incident and was punted by Hamlin as Aric Almirola spun out and collected Alex Bowman in Turn 3. Logano held onto the lead and won Stage 2 on Lap 100.
With a two-tire stop, Hamlin held the point for the Lap 105 restart—but it was short-lived. Kevin Harvick, Elliott, Logano and Chastain took turns in the lead before the Fords pitted on Lap 123.
While the Toyotas and Chevrolets debated when to pit, the Rick Ware Racing teammates made the decision for them after Cody Ware, Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase collided in Turn 4 on Lap 140.
Logano assumed the lead with Blaney in tow. Kyle Busch restarted seventh on Lap 145 but lost the draft and slid through the pack. Chastain checked up to avoid Busch. As Truex slowed behind Chastain, he was punted by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the backstretch and careened into William Byron. After knocking the No. 24 Chevy into the wall, Truex came back across the track and tagged Reddick. As sparks flew, Austin Dillon, who was battling his teammate for the final transfer spot, drove low to avoid the mess.
Reddick limped to pit road with smoke billowing from his car. He attempted to return for additional service when red-flagged the race for 15 minutes on Lap 148. While the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team continued on Reddick’s car, Dillon had to return to the pits to change a battery.
Childress was prescient when he told Dillon things were about to get wild. The race restarted on Lap 151 with Logano leading and Blaney alongside. Hamlin challenged Logano three laps later and the contact resulted in a cut tire on the No. 22 Ford. Logano hit the wall and wrecked but NASCAR failed to call a caution.
Elliott assumed the lead on Lap 154. Two laps later, he attempted to block a run from Matt DiBenedetto—who at the same time got a shot from Hamlin which ignited a 10-car wreck. The incident eliminated Kyle Busch, Bell and Brad Keselowski before the remaining cars were re-racked for overtime on Lap 164.
With a push from LaJoie, Blaney shot out past Buescher for the 45th and final lead change of the race. As the No. 12 Penske Ford led the field through Turn 3, Kurt Busch knocked Daniel Suarez off-center as the No. 99 Chevy attempted to pass Harvick. That triggered the fifth accident, the eighth caution of the night and left Dillon sideways on the track.
What ended Dillon’s postseason hopes ultimately became a blessing for Reddick, who advanced to his first Playoff appearance.
“A lot of nerves running right there and getting through that crash somehow like we did, and getting the finish and crossing the line and whatnot,” said Reddick, who finished with a 30-point cushion over Dillon. “Still got sixth and we got lucky.”
Blaney will celebrate his seventh career Cup win—but then it’s back to business on Monday.
“Momentum is what everything is all about,” Blaney said. “Confidence is key and we came into this weekend very confident after last week with our heads held high. They’ll be a little bit higher this week, so I look forward to getting to Darlington.
“It’s a great way to end the regular season, but we’ve still got work to do. We’ve got 10 weeks of work to do and I’ll look forward to them.”