Welcome back to the NASCAR Cup Series Underdog House for 2022! Beginning with this year’s Daytona 500, this column tracks the small, underfunded teams and their successes in the Cup, Xfinity and Truck series. For more clarification as to who qualifies as an underdog, please see our list at the bottom of this column.
Top Dogs: Michael McDowell and David Ragan
With several underdogs looking to capitalize on a golden opportunity in the 2022 Daytona 500, it was the defending champion who led the way once the checkered flag waved on the 64th Great American Race.
Michael McDowell proved just how special Daytona could be last year, reminding fans anyone in the field has a shot to take home the Harley J. Earl Trophy. The reigning winner started his effort to become only the second back-to-back 500 champion this century from the sixth position. He endured to earn a top-10 finish, winding up seventh for his best result since Circuit of the Americas last May.
In what has become typical fashion for McDowell on superspeedways, it was a mostly quiet day for him. He flashed his speed in the top five at certain moments, then settled in mid-pack around 20th, toward the back of the lead draft. But when the dust of two crashes in the final 10 laps settled, McDowell was once again in a good spot to make a run.
The Phoenix, Ariz. native lined up in seventh for the final restart. He stayed on the inside for the final two laps but never got the opportunity to make a move and go with it. At least the No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford driver crossed the line with a clean race car… until the checkered flag flew. Contact between Brad Keselowski and David Ragan after the finish turned Keselowski into McDowell’s right rear, sending the yellow and red No. 34 hard into the outside wall, collecting Ragan. Fortunately, both drivers were OK.
— Tom Bowles (@NASCARBowles) February 21, 2022
McDowell’s top 10 marks his fourth in his last five Daytona 500 starts.
Behind McDowell in eighth was Ragan, a driver who has proved dependable to be in the hunt at the 500. After stepping away from full-time racing following the 2019 season, Ragan has appeared in three straight Great American Races, typically for one-off events. Sunday, though was his first time not driving for Front Row Motorsports during this stretch. Instead, he piloted the No. 15 Select Blinds Ford for Rick Ware Racing, part of a deal to make several starts for RWR in 2022.
Ragan fell a lap down midway through the race but was able to get his lap back due to a caution. The 36-year-old then put on a display of maneuvering through tight spaces, as several cars fell like dominoes close to the end of the race. He specifically avoided the pileup with nine laps to go, inches away from getting clipped.
The Unadilla, Ga. native stayed in the top 10 from there right up to the end, his second top 10 in three 500 starts since he retired from full-time competition. Unfortunately, after crossing the line in eighth, his car was destroyed after contact with McDowell.
After failing to qualify for the 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing a year ago, Ty Dillon got his new full-time opportunity at Petty GMS Motorsports off to a solid start. The Welcome, N.C. native had an overall quiet day, keeping his No. 42 car clean and picking up an 11th-place finish.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is always someone you have to watch at superspeedways. Those tracks are where both of his career wins have come, including Daytona in 2017. JTG-Daugherty Racing downgraded to one car this year, shifting all of the focus to Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 47 which they felt would make them more competitive overall.
So far, so good for that move, as Stenhouse Jr.’s speed was prevalent throughout the race. The Olive Branch, Miss. native led 16 laps on the day, with most of those coming in the closing stages. In fact, it looked as if he was going to be the one to beat for the crown, leading the penultimate restart with six laps to go. That is when everything went haywire. Coming off turn 4, Stenhouse Jr. received a push from Keselowski. The transfer from the 31-degree banking to the frontstretch caused him to lose control, collecting Chris Buescher and crashing into the wall.
Once again, it was an oh-so-close moment for Stenhouse here with an exceptionally fast car, an opportunity lost in his mind because of Keselowski’s front bumper.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was critical of Brad Keselowski pushing in the corner. Stenhouse: “I guess he just tried to wreck everybody in the field until he won. I guess his other car won that he gave up. So kudos to him.” pic.twitter.com/lf5QMX0Tn4
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) February 21, 2022
Kaulig Racing’s full-time start to Cup competition was interesting, to say the least. In the No. 16, Daniel Hemric made his first Cup start since Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2019. Hemric’s race immediately became an uphill battle, as he failed pre-race inspection three times, forcing a pass-through penalty to start the race. He then had to serve another penalty for pitting twice after receiving the free pass in the first stage.
But Hemric persevered, earning the free pass three times overall en route to a respectable and solid 12th-place finish. The team’s full-time driver, Justin Haley, wasn’t as lucky; he lost a tire in the first stage, inflicting suspension damage. It relegated him to a 23rd-place result, three laps off the pace.
A pair of 50+-year-old drivers made exciting starts in the race. Former 1995 Indy 500 and 1997 Formula One champion Jacques Villenueve made his first start in the Daytona 500. Despite losing the draft early and a spin entering pit road at one point, the 50-year-old was able to finish a respectable 22nd.
At 52 years old, veteran Greg Biffle also qualified, making his first start in the Cup Series since 2016 for NY Racing. His race got off to an unfortunate start early, as Biffle was forced to head the garage in the first stage to replace a fuel line. He returned to the track, but his chances to win were over, finishing 36th.
Not one driver is immune to superspeedway crashes, including underdogs. Several of them suffered damage or mechanical issues throughout the day, including another driver who got up front. After a run that saw him lead three laps and stay inside the top 10 for a large portion of the race, Erik Jones was involved in the lap 190 crash, relegating him to 29th.
Rookie Todd Gilliland also had an impressive Cup debut for Front Row Motorsports. He was running in the top five when the same crash occurred, punting him back to 33rd. Finally, after qualifying The Money Team for their very first race, Kaz Grala had a wheel fall off in the first stage, leading to a 26th-place result. And Ross Chastain had an early end to his 500, getting caught up in the first pileup on lap 63 as he wound up dead last.
Underdogs Sound Off
Michael McDowell: “I was not exactly where I wanted to be. I would have liked to been a row or two up. It’s hard to win from sixth, but I had my Ford teammate in front of me, Aric Almirola, and saw that everybody was pushing hard. You can’t see too much through the back window of the car, so you’re just kind of pushing and hoping it all works out.
“I thought we were gonna get to the finish line, so as I was crossing the line I just got hooked in the right-rear and went straight in the wall. That was unfortunate because we had a pretty clean race. That’s not what we wanted. We wanted to come back here and challenge for the win, but we were close to being in that position again – being in that top five coming to the white, but we just needed to be a few more spots further forward. All in all, it was a great race.”
David Ragan: “[…] The first thing that I saw was the [No.] 12 car come across the racetrack and we all started kind of squeezing down and then I felt Michael McDowell come across my left-front fender and that kind of ran us into the wall. It was right at the start-finish line. That’s unfortunate to tear up a lot of race cars for that reason, but you’re going for the win in the Daytona 500 and no one is gonna lift and everyone is gonna do what they’ve got to do. I couldn’t be more proud of our effort. We really did a perfect job executing the whole race long. We made some adjustments. We just kept fighting and tried to be careful and get aggressive when it counted, so happy to come home with a top 10, but you’re disappointed to have a torn up race car. Select Blinds, Jacob Companies, Envision, everybody that made this possible. It was a lot of fun and I’m sure we’ll come back one day.”
Ty Dillon: “I am really proud of these guys because we accomplished what we wanted; to get in position late in the race and have a shot at a good finish. It’s a great start for this team and we are looking forward to Fontana and the rest of the season.”
Daniel Suarez: “Our day was O.K. We had a fast No. 99 Tootsies Orchid Lounge Chevy, we just got behind there with the speeding penalty. The No. 42 (Ty Dillon) kind of pushed me to the grass and then we had a loose wheel. It wasn’t a clean day, but we’ll move onto Auto Club (Speedway).”
Jacques Villeneuve: “It was amazing. It was a handful. The car was more difficult to drive than I expected. It was tight. It was loose and that was not expected after testing, but just getting the draft was complicated – especially at the start because everybody just jammed and hit the brakes and that was it. That’s frustrating. It’s really hard to get back in the pack.
I want to do more, obviously. I’ve always wanted to do more and more racing. Right now, there was only this race planned, but we’ll see how it pans out. We got a good result. The car is intact and maybe we can get some sponsors and go racing again.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: “We put ourselves in the perfect position really for us to come down to leading the Daytona 500 with five laps to go. All and all, our No. 47 Kroger/Irish Spring Camaro just got pushed in the wrong spot. We did everything we could today to put ourselves in the right position. We’ve got to be happy about that and move on.”
Todd Gilliland: “That was like the one wreck that I thought I had missed from the beginning. I was going low. I was on the apron and the 43 was trying to miss it, too, and it looked like he got hit and hit my right-rear and right-reared me into the fence. That’s racing here at Daytona. They were joking in the infield care center that this place takes a lot more than it gives. I feel like I was having a really good day until then, though, so we’ll take the positives out. I still think this was a pretty good first points Cup race, so we’ll keep moving on.”
Ross Chastain: “They were just wrecking and I saw a car upside down. Just wrong place, wrong time for our No. 1 Advent Health Chevrolet. Bummer. Yeah, everybody I was around was pretty calm. I saw the tandem up front. Everything looked fine. I was blind to what happened, so I don’t really know what went wrong.”
Small Team Scheme of the Race
Among the new changes to kick off 2022 was that of the number placement. Numbers have been pushed forward to allow more room for sponsor exposure on the car. Several teams took the opportunity to capitalize on it, with several looking good under the Daytona sun.
Overall, Ross Chastain’s No. 1 Advent Health Chevrolet stuck out to. It was clean, variegated car that added his signature watermelon for a twist. Unfortunately, it ended up mangled after “The Big One” struck.
The day just didn't go as we hoped. pic.twitter.com/IxpbBCoBge
— Trackhouse Racing (@TeamTrackhouse) February 21, 2022
Who Are The Cup Series Underdogs?
Frontstretch has used specific criteria of its own to define NASCAR Cup Series underdogs for 2022.
These drivers and teams were selected based off past experience, prior team results, team caliber and equipment.
Rick Ware Racing No. 15
Kaulig Racing No. 16
Loris Hezemans / Jacques Villeneuve (No. 27)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr
Spire Motorsports No. 77
The Money Team
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.