Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Friends Are Where You Find Them at Daytona

The week of racing leading up to the 2023 Daytona 500 followed a familiar pattern. The Chevrolets, specifically Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson from Hendrick Motorsports, blazed to the front row during single-car qualifying. Both of the Bluegreen Vacation Duels went to Ford drivers Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. Just like the last few seasons, Chevy brought the most speed to Daytona International Speedway in single-car runs, while Fords were the best at drafting and working through the pack. Even during Sunday’s race, many of the multi-car teams made an obvious effort to work together or stick with their manufacturer allies.

Yet in the closing laps of the Daytona 500, another familiar pattern emerged. The drivers left standing had to find friends wherever they could, regardless of whether there was a gold bowtie, blue oval, or silver ellipses on the nose of the car. A race that felt like a high-speed chess match for the first 180 laps turned into an all-out street brawl running well past the scheduled distance. Once the final multi-car accident broke out in turn 1 on lap 212, it was fitting that one Chevy, one Ford and one Toyota were the only cars left standing.

For the first time since 2018, Chevrolet was victorious in the Great American Race, courtesy of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse, winless for the last five and a half seasons, swept into the lead on lap 203 thanks to a push from fellow Chevrolet driver Larson. Moments later, chaos erupted when Austin Dillon spun behind the leaders, triggering a huge crash. Stenhouse was able to hold the lead, but the ensuing caution set up a second overtime restart.

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With the choose rule now in place on superspeedways, the drivers who lined up behind Stenhouse in the outside lane were Logano and Kyle Busch, who had lost new teammate Dillon. Larson lined up on the inside with Christopher Bell in a Toyota behind him. The intent in the Chevy camp was to have Stenhouse drop down into the low line and link up with Larson, but Stenhouse and Larson got stuck drag racing each other down the backstretch. To complicate matters, Logano and Busch got a huge run in the high groove to pull even with Stenhouse as the field took the white flag. What ultimately gave Stenhouse the win was the timing of the final crash and a good push from Bell, which got Stenhouse’s Chevrolet past Logano’s Ford at the moment the caution came out.

“This (Daytona) is the sight of my last win, back in 2017,” Stenhouse said. “We worked really hard. We had a couple shots last year to get the win and fell short. It was a tough season, but man, we got it done (here), Daytona 500.”

Seeing Stenhouse win on a superspeedway is no surprise. Although he has a reputation for using a high-risk, high-reward drafting style, he is able to consistently find his way to the front of these races. Even when Stenhouse’s car does end up on the wrecker, it’s usually after a day of mixing it up for the race lead.

What’s more surprising is that Stenhouse was able to end his long winless drought in the biggest race of them all after a disappointing 2022 season with JTG Daugherty Racing. Stenhouse’s No. 47 team is one of the last single-car operations left in the NASCAR Cup Series. JTG’s only other Cup Series victory came back in 2014 when AJ Allmendinger won at Watkins Glen International. Ever since then, the No. 47 has struggled to be competitive. Even after the Next Gen car gave many of the mid-pack teams a shot in the arm last year, Stenhouse slumped to 26th in points, his worst result in eight years. Going into Sunday, it was hard to imagine that he and JTG would be the ones to survive over 500 miles of pack racing on Daytona’s high banks.

Yet Stenhouse was the one who succeeded where other multi-car teams with a more coordinated gameplan could not go the distance. Bowman and Larson were Hendrick’s best chances on Sunday, but they didn’t work together much at the end of the race. Logano was fast all week, but his Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric, plus Harrison Burton in the affiliated Wood Brothers Racing Ford, got picked off one by one in several accidents.

The teammates who worked best together were Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher from RFK Racing, who led a combined 74 laps and stuck to each other’s bumpers during the second half of the race. However, Keselowski and Buescher struggled to find additional drafting help during the overtime laps. The RFK duo may have played their hand too early.

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Even Busch and Dillon were not able to seal the deal for Richard Childress Racing. For the first overtime restart, Busch and Dillon chose the outside and inside lines respectively, intending to have Busch move to the low lane and pick up Dillon. Yet that only allowed Logano to draft past both of them before Stenhouse got a push from Larson to take the lead from Logano after Dillon’s crash.

It was amusing to see Busch link up with Logano during the second overtime run. The two of them have been squabbling the last few weeks following an incident during the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Despite their speed, the cards did not fall either drivers’ way on Sunday. Logano had to settle for second and Busch remains winless in the Daytona 500 after another close call.

As for Stenhouse, it’s too early to tell if he and JTG Daugherty will be more competitive on a week-to-week basis. If the 2023 Cup Series season produces a variety of winners, this victory may not even be enough to get Stenhouse to the playoffs. But winning the Daytona 500 is enormously satisfying in and of itself. The No. 47 team may not have had a dedicated teammate to race with, but they did have a driver who could expertly work the draft late in the race once manufacturer alliances went out the window. In this 65th running of the Daytona 500, the driver made the difference.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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