With 196 of 200 scheduled laps complete in the 2023 Daytona 500, two-time series champion Kyle Busch looked set to win the race for the first time in his first-ever race for Richard Childress Racing. He and teammate Austin Dillon orchestrated a perfect move ahead of the leading pair of Brad Keselowski and his teammate Chris Buescher, then blocked all moves from behind. It was a memorable moment in superspeedway racing, one that had been developing since the day's final pit stops 20 laps earlier.
Then Daniel Suarez spun into the infield grass, and it was all thrown out.
NASCAR's overtime rules necessitate a two-lap restart after every crash before the final lap of a race. In practical terms at a pack racing track like Daytona, that means the field will be thrown back into a pack and push aggressively no matter the position they are fighting for. Generally, more wrecks follow. That was certainly the case today.
On the first restart, Dillon and Busch decided to split themselves and start leading opposite lanes. Busch was able to get ahead and slot in front of Dillon as planned, but Dillon gave Busch an off-center push coming off the next corner that forced both to lift. Drivers behind Dillon hit him as he checked up, triggering a massive wreck that took out many remaining cars. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. now led. Since the crash happened with more than one lap to go, that also meant another restart.
This time, there was no sense of cohesion left in the pack. Drivers pushed whomever was ahead of them and took any run they could see, so the pack shuffled behind Stenhouse and Joey Logano seemingly at random over the next lap and a half. Somewhere in there, Aric Almirola gave one-off entrant Travis Pastrana an awkward push and sent him careening into the field. That wrecked another handful of cars, bringing out a caution on the final lap.
That one ended the race, and, as NASCAR's rules necessitate, a video review later showed that the timing of the yellow being thrown by the race official meant that Stenhouse would win over Logano in an effective photo finish.
It is the biggest moment in Stenhouse's career. He joins what has become a strange tradition of upset winners in NASCAR's most prestigious single race. Stenhouse, who has only ever won in pack races and has not won since the Summer race at Daytona in 2017, is in his fourth season with JTG Daugherty after spending the majority of his career at what was then Roush Fenway Racing. With three career wins, Stenhouse is the sixth driver since 2010 and third in a row to win this race with fewer than ten career wins across their entire NASCAR Cup Series career.
Stenhouse has effectively locked himself into the NASCAR postseason already, setting up what would be just the second playoff appearance of his career. He would miss the field only if 16 other drivers win races, all either finishing ahead of him in the season-long standings or winning more than one race.
The long NASCAR season is now officially underway, with the series set to run 37 races over the next 38 weeks. The season continues with a race at the 2-mile, low-banked intermediate oval in Fontana, California, next weekend.
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