By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In the longest Daytona 500 in the 65-year history of the Great American Race, one of the sport’s long-shot underdogs finally got his chance to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
After driving from seventh to the race lead during the first overtime attempt at the 2.5-mile World Center of Racing, Stenhouse then used a push from 2015 Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano to maintain the lead following the final restart.
The Olive Branch, Miss., native held command at the white flag, then was out in front of Logano when the field wrecked behind him in turn two, forcing a race-ending caution that clinched Stenhouse the win.
“Man, this is unbelievable,” a breathless Stenhouse said on the frontstretch. “This was the site of my last win back in 2017. We’ve worked really hard since then. We had a couple shots last year to get a win and fell short. It was a tough season then, but man, we got it done tonight. Daytona 500, baby!”
Sunday night marked Stenhouse’s third career Cup Series win and his first victory at NASCAR’s top level since 2017. He previously won at Daytona in July of 2017 before Sunday’s Daytona 500 breakthrough.
It came in Stenhouse’s first race back with crew chief Mike Kelley, who guided Stenhouse to back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships when Stenhouse was driving for team owner Jack Roush. It was also the first Daytona 500 win for team owners Tad Geschickter, Jodi Geschickter and Brad Daugherty.
“This whole off-season, Mike just preached how much we all believed in each other. They left me a note in the car that said they believe in me and to go get the job done tonight,” explained Stenhouse. “I made a few mistakes, but we were able to battle back.
“This Kroger Continental team worked really, really hard in the off-season, and tonight we had great pit stops and great power from the Hendrick engine. That was a heck of a race.”
Though the 65th edition of the Daytona 500 ran without incident – aside from a scheduled stage break at lap 65 – for its first 117 laps, the closing stages were as wild as expected and whittled the field of contenders down to a select few in the end.
The final box score featured 212 completed laps – 530 miles – marking the longest Daytona 500 ever.
After the final round of green-flag pit stops for fuel, following the 25-to-go benchmark, the first major accident of the night came with 19 to go when a pair of packs tried to merge getting back up to speed.
Ryan Preece, Martin Truex Jr., 2021 winner Michael McDowell and 2007 winner Kevin Harvick were eliminated from contention at that point, all with substantial damage. It only got wilder from there.
At that point, Stenhouse had just gotten a speeding penalty under the cycle of green-flag pit stops, while Harrison Burton was leading for the Wood Brothers in an attempt to give the famed family their 100th Cup Series victory.
Burton got shuffled out quickly following the next restart with 13 to go, while Logano had a nervous moment near the front of the pack and RFK Racing eventually came out of all the chaos with the race lead as Chris Buescher pushed Brad Keselowski to the front on lap 190.
The RFK duo would hold that formation, with Richard Childress Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon close behind, for the next seven laps until Busch and Dillon made their move for the lead along with the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of William Byron.
Busch grabbed the top spot on lap 197, seemingly ready to break his Daytona 500 winless streak in his 18th attempt, but a caution for the spinning car of Daniel Suarez led to the night’s first overtime try.
Busch and Dillon split at the choose, trying to control both lanes on the ensuing green flag, and it worked until the bottom lane got disjointed down the backstretch and ended when Byron turned Busch around into the pack, sparking a 13-car melee that eliminated the likes of Dillon, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, defending race winner Austin Cindric and more from the fray.
In all of that insanity, Stenhouse shot a pair of gaps to get to the race lead, even as multiple teams were low on fuel and nervous about a second overtime potentially running their gas tanks dry.
Stenhouse, to his credit, remained calm and never wavered. He relied on Logano’s drafting help when the green flag waved for the final time and was in front on the last lap as a result when half of the remaining frontrunners crashed to conclude the marathon.
Logano’s runner-up result was his fifth finish of sixth or better since winning his only Daytona 500 in 2015. It’s a nice way to start the season, Logano admitted, but not winning on the biggest stage still stung for the Middletown, Conn., native.
“Second here is the worst, man. You’re so close, and it’s just not enough,” Logano lamented. “Leading the white flag lap there, I was up front. Kyle [Larson] gave me a good push … and I felt like the three wide was going a hurt a lane. It looked like Kyle was getting pushed ahead, and then Ricky started getting pushed ahead.
“I knew if I went to the bottom my car wouldn’t handle well enough. I had already got pushed off the bottom once and I knew if I went down there I was probably going to get wrecked,” he added. “I didn’t know if I could get down there in time to throw the block and didn’t want to wreck my car either.
“Congratulations to Ricky, though. There’s nothing like winning the Daytona 500 and that’s why it stings so much finishing second.”
Christopher Bell was scored third after NASCAR’s video review, with Buescher fourth after leading five times for 32 laps during the day. Polesitter Alex Bowman, in a quiet day, closed the top five.
Sixth through 10th in NASCAR’s biggest race were A.J. Allmendinger, Suarez, Ryan Blaney, stage two winner Ross Chastain and Riley Herbst, who was making his Cup Series debut in the No. 15 Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing.
Keselowski, who won stage one and appeared dominant all day long after leading six times for a race-high 42 laps, was swept up in the last-lap crash and scored 22nd in the final rundown.
Ty Dillon was the day’s first retiree, out with an engine failure after completing just 26 laps.
The NASCAR Cup Series season continues Feb. 26 at California’s Auto Club Speedway with the running of the Pala Casino 400. The event is scheduled to be the final race on the track’s current two-mile layout.