Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Spire Motorsports Plays Game of Survival at Daytona

Top Dog: Spire Motorsports

Most of you have probably come across the song “I Will Survive” before. You can probably pinpoint a time that was the theme of a certain moment you experienced.

By the end of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (Aug. 27), that would have been a credible thought for most drivers.

While there were only two cautions for cause, both were massive in their own way.

With several small teams caught up in the Big One of the race, Spire Motorsports emerged to top the underdogs.

Corey LaJoie came up short of the win he needed to crash the playoff party, but the No. 7 was able to score a solid top 10 in 10th.

LaJoie earned it the classic way, hanging out behind the lead draft for most of the first half as he flew under the radar. The decision paid dividends, as the Big One struck on the final lap of stage two, collecting 16 cars. Fortunately, LaJoie made it through.

Though LaJoie was quieter than anticipated for a superspeedway race, he slowly edged towards the front as the race went into the second half, cracking the top 20 for the last stage. However, he was unable to make much headway towards the front, and despite a final caution for a scary crash involving Ryan Preece, a final restart wasn’t enough to propel the 31-year-old into contention, as he finished 10th.

Meanwhile, his Spire teammate, Ty Dillon, had one of his most impressive runs in a while. After also running at the back, Dillon survived the Big One to keep himself in the hunt. The only hiccup early on was his car running out of fuel during the stage two break, but he immediately recovered from it.

With several playoff and heavyweight bubble drivers running up front, Dillon snuck his No. 77 into the top 10 with 40 laps to go, getting as high as eighth. The Welcome, N.C. native stayed up front for the remainder of the race, making some teams nervous about a potential upset. In spite of that not occurring, Dillon scored an impressive 11th-place finish.

The performance delivered Spire its best pair of finishes since the 2021 Daytona 500, where Jamie McMurray finished eighth and LaJoie finished ninth. Saturday was just the second time that two of its drivers landed a top 15 in the same race.

For LaJoie, it’s just the second time his career that he has earned multiple top 10s in a season, and the first with Spire. Dillon scored his highest finish of the season and best since a top 10 in the Bristol Dirt Race last year.

Despite neither driver upsetting the playoff picture, it was another step forward for the growing team.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Flips, Eliminations Abound at Chaotic Daytona

Who Impressed

Michael McDowell wrapped up his final reps for the playoffs with a 13th-place finish. The 2021 Daytona 500 winner didn’t have a flashy night, but he brought the car home in one piece and grabbed a solid result.

McDowell started at the rear after the team believed something broke in the driveshaft to slow his qualifying lap down. However, he quickly worked his way through the field before ultimately dropping out of the pack at the end of stage one. McDowell was also able to dodge the Big One to keep himself in contention at the end. The 38-year-old did crack the top 10 in the final 45 laps, but a run to the front never materialized, leaving the Front Row Motorsports just outside the top 10 at the end.

Two years after that 500 win, McDowell finally got to celebrate the right way: having his family join him in victory lane.

A pair of NASCAR Xfinity Series regulars earned career-best finishes in the race after rough Xfinity results themselves. Austin Hill had a solid night overall, keeping his nose clean while attaining key information in the Cup car. Driving for Beard Motorsports, Hill quietly landed a 14th-place finish in his fifth-career Cup start.

Right behind Hill in 15th was Chandler Smith, making just his second Cup appearance. The 21-year-old impressed in more ways than one. After having to drop to the rear for failed inspection, Smith was the first car to go one lap down, resulting in a 39th-place stage one result. Fortunately, he earned the free pass and went to work.

Smith drove just outside the top 10 in stage two before playing it safe and dropping out. It was a smart move, as the stage-ending chaos ensued ahead of him. In the final stage, the Kaulig Racing driver mixed it up with the leaders, even battling for the top spot briefly. However, the No. 13 was caught in the back half of cars when everyone pitted with under 20 laps remaining, costing Smith track position that ultimately placed him in 15th. Still, there was a lot to be excited about for the young driver, who has finishes of 17th and 15th in his two starts.

Erik Jones‘ shot of grabbing a playoff spot came to an end with an 18th-place showing. After staying out of trouble all night, Jones appeared to be in a good spot in the waning laps, running inside the top five. Unfortunately, the green flag pit stop cycle dropped him down the order, and he was unable to recover to fight for the win.

J.J. Yeley once again put a quietly good result together. Yeley typically hangs around towards the back for most of the race, allowing him to survive for the end of the race. That was the case once again, as Yeley scored a 19th-place finish. It was his fifth top 20 of the season, his most since 2007.

Who’s in the Dog House

Several drivers’ hopes of making the playoffs were dashed during the Big One on lap 95. Both Harrison Burton and AJ Allmendinger were caught up in the crash after putting together strong runs, with both leading laps during the race. While neither driver suffered major damage, both had all four tires go flat, leaving them stranded on the track. By the time they were dragged back to the pits and received repairs, they had gone multiple laps down. Burton finished 28th while Allmendinger was 29th, both scored three laps down.

Todd Gilliland earned the dreaded status of being the first driver eliminated from playoff contention. About 60 laps into the event, Gilliland was black flagged for leaking oil, and he eventually went to the garage.

Despite returning to the track 15 laps down, Gilliland returned to the garage after the stage two with more overheating issues. He finished 32nd.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s bid for a Daytona sweep also came to an end during the Big One. It was an unfortunate ending for the reigning Daytona 500 winner, as his No. 47 displayed strong speed throughout the night, running inside the top 10 multiple times. In spite of a 34th-place result, Stenhouse should have some confidence heading into the playoffs in the midst of a career-best season.

What They’re Saying

Smith (15th): โ€œI think we had a good solid weekend. We were up front in both races, maybe didnโ€™t get the result we probably deserved based on our speed in the Xfinity race. But we moved on to the Cup race, ran up front, showed decent speed, and hopefully got a lot of TV time. Iโ€™d call that a success.โ€

Allmendinger (29th): โ€œI canโ€™t thank my guys enough for the No. 16 Action Industries Chevy we had today. This was the best speedway car we have had, it handled well and had a lot of speed. We got caught up in a wreck running near the front of the field and that ultimately ended our day, but Iโ€™m proud of all the effort, weโ€™ll keep making gains and hopefully get some finishes to show it.โ€

Stenhouse (34th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

McDowell had the colors of Fr8Auctions return, but with a twist this time. Promoting the new Fr8 Racing program, the car featured an inverse of the regular white and black base, carrying stars on the door as well. It was a scheme that fit the setting of The World Center of Racing.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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