Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, July 8, 2018, 11:45 a.m.
Dale Earnhardt once said he could see the air. I remember the time he said so after a victory at Talladega. In the press box, where winners once held their post-race conferences, I asked him about it, and he said he didn’t mean it literally. He could see the effects of the air better than others.
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 was contested in air. An air of desperation. I could see it on a TV from 437 miles away.
As in the case of the Daytona 500 at the season’s outset, the winner, Erik Jones, survived it as much as he won it. He deserves credit. Negotiating a minefield is hard.
The owner of Jones’ Toyota, Joe Gibbs, said, “It’s just this year has been extremely hard because we’ve had, really, four people winning all the races, and so it doesn’t leave room for anybody else.”
To be precise, four guys – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Clint Bowyer – have won 15 of the 18 races. The playoffs begin after eight more. The usual suspects mentioned above, particularly the first three, are going to be favored in all of them. For all the drivers in all the cars who have been buffeted about in the wake of the Big Three all year long, Daytona International Speedway was the last best window of opportunity and, for most, the window of doom.
If they melted down all that crumpled steel, they could almost offset a tariff.
Jones, last year’s rookie of the year, found the window of opportunity and the first Monster Energy Cup victory of his career.
As his crew chief, Chris Gayle, said, “Erik is as laid-back a guy as you will ever be around, but, behind the wheel, very aggressive.”
Oh, the chaos. Oh, the anarchy. Oh, the tumult. Oh, the turmoil. Ten times did the yellow flags wave in protest, and six times did they wave for crashes involving multiple cars.
Democracy is messy. Give a chance to those who seldom get them, and they will literally throw a caution flag to the wind.
A.J. Allmendinger finished third, Chris Buescher finished fifth, Ty Dillon sixth, Matt DiBenedetto seventh, Jeffrey Earnhardt 11th, Brendan Gaughan 12th, D.J. Kennington 13th, Darrell Wallace Jr. 14th and Ray Black Jr. 16th. Only Allmendinger and Buescher have ever won a Cup race.
The winner was in a wreck. Most of the top 10 were in wrecks. Most of those in the nether reaches of the standings were in several.
Jones counted it down afterwards.
“[I] was 15th, and [I] was 12th and then [I] was seventh and then [I] was fourth and then [I] was second, and it kind of kept inching forward, and on the last restart, I was, like, we’ve got a legitimate shot at this point.”*
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has won two of these horsepower-restricted, crash-enhanced races before, caused more trouble on Saturday night than termites. Don’t be too harsh. Life at Daytona and Talladega has turned him that way. He took the blame, not that he could have avoided it.
“It was fun for a while,” Stenhouse said. “I was frustrated with myself causing crashes like that. You don’t ever really want to do that.”
He also said he didn’t feel any need to “smooth things over.”
“No, it’s aggressive speedway racing. We needed to win to get in the playoffs, so it is what it is.”
Barney Fife might have said to Andy Taylor of Stenhouse what he said of Ernest T. Bass: “He’s a nut.”
After his early crash, Allmendinger said he probably missed seven after that, including a few that didn’t happen because of avoidance
“It is very aggressive,” he added. “The urgency, whether it’s to stay up front, even if there’s a lot of time to get back to the front, I’m not really sure why, but, to me, that’s what’s causing it. … It was a destruction derby out there instead of a Cup race.”
Truex, who is the reigning champion but has never won a plate race, finished second.
“Man, they destroyed some cars,” he said. “That was insane. Cool to get to the end. I wish I could have done a better job for my team. I have to get better at the blocking. It never has been my strong suit.”
Chase Elliott, who started first, crashed out on the 54th lap and placed 34th. One positive was that he got to watch the rest of the race through something other than windshield and mirrors.
What was he thinking?
“… We are not going to have anybody left before it’s over with,” Elliott said.
*All reports are that Jones was alone in the car, so I took the liberty of changing his “we” to “I.”
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