While this year’s owner points won’t be used until after the first five races of the season, teams on the bubble last season gave it their best effort in the Daytona 500, the first race of the 2011 season. Several of the bubble drivers led laps in the 500, securing important bonus points for the year.
Not every driver got a taste of the front, suffering some bad luck while getting caught up in the lap 29 Big One or suffering mechanical woes on a day that saw multiple engine failures.
LOCKED INTO THE FIRST FIVE RACES
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Sunday’s Finish: 7th
Smith was not just the most impressive driver on this list, but arguably the most impressive driver during the Daytona 500! Smith was only able to lead twice for seven laps, but was a big player as a pusher in the draft. Smith spent a large portion of the race working with Penske Racing driver Kurt Busch, similar to the way the two worked together in the Gatorade Duel last Thursday (Feb. 17). Throughout the race, the No. 78 Chevrolet was seen pushing several big name drivers to the front.
Smith’s day wasn’t without incident though, as he was involved in the second-to-last caution flag of the event. Contact with Busch sent Smith up into the No. 33 Chevrolet of Clint Bowyer, triggering a multi-car accident. However, the damage sustained was not enough to knock Smith out of the race and he was able to come home with a top-10 finish.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Sunday’s Finish: 16th
Gordon had race winner Trevor Bayne to thank for leading a few laps (two times for seven circuits). Outside of being involved in several incidents (Gordon spun Brad Keselowski on lap 168 and made a great save after hard contact from David Gilliland on lap 204), Gordon went virtually unnoticed on the broadcast for most of the day, despite hanging around the top 10 for a majority of the race. Gordon’s average running position was 16th, as he spent 105 laps in the top 15.
No. 34 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Sunday’s Finish: 3rd
How Gilliland worked his way up to third is beyond me, but somehow he made it happen. While teammate Travis Kvapil was enduring a hellish day, Gilliland was pushing second-place finisher Carl Edwards to the front on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Though unable to lead any laps, Gilliland grabbed his first top five since finishing second at Infineon Raceway back in 2008.
Gilliland’s charge towards the front was all the more surprising because he was hardly ever towards the front! On average, Gilliland ran in the 21st position and only spent 42 laps in the top 15. In fact, Gilliland was running 22nd with 20 laps to go. Talk about come from behind!
No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Kvapil was involved in several incidents throughout the day, making his final incident sort of a mercy killing. Kvapil was involved in the fourth caution of the day on lap 29 after Michael Waltrip made contact with David Reutimann. The crash collected a total of 17 cars.
On lap 48, Kvapil was involved in an incident with teammate Robert Richardson and ended up in the infield grass. Finally, Kvapil lost a right front tire that sent his Ford into the wall. The damage sustained in the accident was enough to knock Kvapil out of the race 55 laps before the end.
No. 09 – Bill Elliott (Phoenix Racing)
Sunday’s Finish: 12th
Elliott had a pretty quiet day, running on average in the 25th position and spending only 13 of the 208 totally laps in the top 15. Elliott was running 20th with 20 laps to go, but missed a couple of big wrecks to bring it home 12th. Elliott never ran any higher than the seventh position.
No. 36 – Dave Blaney (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Blaney was able to grab a bonus point, leading once for three laps. Blaney spent 77 of the 208 laps in the top 15 and was running on average in the 18th position before succumbing to damage 10 laps short of the finish. Tommy Baldwin Racing has targeted 16 races they want to complete this year, though Blaney is going to attempt to qualify for all 36 races. Staying out of trouble was part of the equation to surviving Daytona, but they will need to sustain their performance better in the coming weeks to attract sponsors, after watching a potential top-15 run evaporate late.
No. 46 – JJ Yeley (Whitney Motorsports)
Sunday’s Finish: 43rd
Yeley only ran 10 laps in the Daytona 500 before his engine let go. Yeley is supposed to be running the full season for Whitney Motorsports in 2011, but to do so without resorting to last year’s start-and-park practices will require their engines and equipment to last a whole lot longer than 10 laps into an event.
No. 87 – Joe Nemechek (NEMCO Motorsports)
Sunday’s Finish: 39th
Nemechek only made it 29 laps into the race before a 17-car pileup knocked him out of the race prematurely. Waltrip was trying to bump draft Reutimann in the corner, causing Reutimann to lose control of his car, spin and collect a number of other cars behind him, including Nemechek. Nemechek would be unable to return to the racetrack, the second consecutive season his self-owned team wrecked out of the Daytona 500 early.
No. 92 – Brian Keselowski (K-Automotive)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
The feel-good story of Speedweeks (before Bayne’s victory anyway) was cut short after Keselowski got caught up in someone else’s mess on the fourth caution of the day. Keselowski earned many fans on Thursday after brother Brad pushed him to the needed position to make the Daytona 500 in the Gatorade Duel, and many were rooting for him to do well in the big show on Sunday.
While there would be no feel-good finish after the No. 92 was swept up in the lap 29 wreck, Keselowski grabbed the attention of many people. As reported by Frontstretch from Daytona Sunday, Keselowski may not be able to race next weekend in Phoenix and is considering running a partial schedule. Regardless of when his next race happens to be, Keselowski will have fans cheering him on after playing the role of Cinderella in Daytona Beach this weekend.
No. 32 – Terry Labonte (FAS Lane Racing)
Sunday’s Finish: 15th
Labonte led the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2004 on Sunday and spent 26 laps in the top 15. Labonte was running on average in the 23rd position and ran the fastest lap four times in the race. FAS Lane Racing tabbed Labonte as their driver to guarantee them a starting position using the past champion’s provisional and he was able to get them a top-15 finish out of the deal, his best 500 finish since 2000.
No. 15 – Michael Waltrip (Michael Waltrip Racing)
Sunday’s Finish: 40th
Waltrip ran triple-duty this weekend in honor of his friend and former owner Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. While he was able to pull off the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory, Waltrip’s efforts towards scoring a third Daytona 500 trophy would fall short after crashing just 29 laps into the race.
Waltrip started the Big One when his attempt at a bump draft with driver and teammate Reutimann went wrong, spinning the No. 00 and collecting 15 other cars. Even before that incident, Waltrip was responsible for the race’s first yellow flag after spinning Kyle Busch while trying to draft three-wide through the corners.
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