Splitter to Spoiler: Stenhouse suddenly a superspeedway sensation

Rough driver collects second checkered flag in eight races, veteran scores career-best finish and Dale Jr. fights back before ending in garage

Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrates after winning the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway.

It took Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 157 races to earn his first victory. It took just seven more races for Stenhouse to earn his second.The suddenly surging Roush Fenway Racing driver pulled off his second superspeedway win of the season on Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400. It was not only a second victory for Stenhouse, but also further secured his spot in the playoffs with nine races remaining and six spots left in the postseason.Stenhouse may have already won a race at Talladega earlier this season, but was still not viewed as a true challenger week in and week out. But after collecting his fourth top-five finish and second checkered flag of the year, it’s hard not to pay attention to the No. 17 team when the playoffs roll around.”This validates what we did at Talladega,” Stenhouse said. “I want to first off thank all the troops that have fallen for our country, for our freedom. That is most important right now. Thank the good Lord for letting me come out here and do what I do for a living and work with this great group of guys. “We have been working hard at Roush Fenway and this pushes us further along.”Some will say that many of the top contenders in Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch all bowing out earlier helped, but Stenhouse still had plenty of competition to get to the front. Past Daytona winners in Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan were all still driving up near the front before bowing out of the lead pack at the end.More than anything, the second win gives Stenhouse great positioning for when the playoffs begin. His two wins give Stenhouse a total of 10 playoff points, slotting him at fifth behind only Martin Truex Jr., Johnson, Larson and Brad Keselowski, respectively. And with his No. 17 team firmly entrenched near the top of the postseason, he’s earning the respect of fellow drivers in the process. “He’s learned a lot,” runner-up Clint Bowyer said. “He’s become a good plate racer. I remember when he came in, he was a little bit chaotic, but he’s not now. He’s got it figured out, and he’s won two of them.”Close, but no cigarWhen the green flag dropped in NASCAR’s overtime, the top five consisted of David Ragan, Ty Dillon, Stenhouse Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Michael McDowell. Of the top 10, only Stenhouse and Ryan Newman had prior wins this season, setting up for what could have been a fantastic underdog story in NASCAR.The sport got one in Stenhouse, but could’ve had so much more.Ragan has won two superspeedway races in his career, but is driving for a Front Row Motorsports team that has a total of two race wins as well. Allmendinger has a road course win, but has gone winless and has just two previous top 10s to his name this season, including a third-place result in the Daytona 500.As for Dillon and McDowell, both were laps away from the best races of their careers. The rookie Dillon wound up 16th after a poor second restart, but led seven laps — his second-most this season.McDowell, on the other hand, continued to fight up front and came away with a fourth-place result. It was the highest career finish for both McDowell and Leavine Family Racing, a single-car team that had yet to finish inside the top 10 this season.”It was a great run from us,” McDowell said of his fourth-place finish. ” It wasn’t without trouble. We were around a lot of the carnage out there and was able to make it through. There was a lot of hard racing tonight, three-wide, bumper-to-bumper all night long.”Not everyone was happy with McDowell’s performance, though.In Stage 2, McDowell made contact with Kyle Busch, triggering a multi-car pileup that collected Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray.McDowell also bumped into the rear of Chase Elliott’s car, sending him flying through the infield grass and costing him a chance at a comeback win after running out of fuel while leading the Daytona 500. While he was able to collect himself before talking to the media. Elliott’s response in the car was telling.”That is the biggest dumbass I’ve ever seen in my life,” Elliott told his crew. “That sumbitch couldn’t drive a wood screw through sh**.”He may have riled up Elliott earlier in the night, but McDowell and LFR come away with a result similar to a win for most teams. Even with a few drivers upset over his tactics, the payoff for a top-five finish in Daytona is well worth the animosity in the garage.Dale’s disastrous final Daytona runDale Earnhardt Jr. did everything he could to fight his way back to the lead lap only to see his day end in disastrous fashion. A massive wreck ended likely his final race at Daytona International Speedway in the Coke Zero 400 Saturday night as Kevin Harvick spun out and collected the No. 88 on Lap 106.”I wish we could’ve had a better finish tonight,” Earnhardt said. “But it just wasn’t meant to be.”Earnhardt hasn’t been able to put together many great runs this season, only collecting one top five and four top-10 finishes this season. But after collecting the pole for the Coke Zero 400, Junior was viewed as the favorite to finally win his fifth race at Daytona.The No. 88 ran near the front throughout the first stage, finishing second at the end of the first segment. A bump from Paul Menard sent Junior careening into the wall and caused him to lose two laps. Earnhardt got back the two laps and was running in sixth place when Harvick spun, sending both to the garage.”We just blew a tire,” Harvick said afterward. “I hate it for our Jimmy John’s Ford guys. That’s the way it goes. It just blew out right in the middle of the corner. I hate to wreck half the field. That’s a part of what we do.”Outside of Harvick and Junior, however, most of the pack wasn’t affected. Both Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne spun out, but neither suffered severe damage and remained on the track.Though the wreck wasn’t necessarily the “Big One,” it dealt a big blow to NASCAR’s most popular driver in his final season. With just nine races remaining before the start of the playoffs and no more restrictor-plate races prior to the cutoff, the pressure is on Earnhardt.But after a strong run at a track that has been dubbed “Dale-tona” in previous years, Earnhardt is confident heading into the final stretch of the regular season.”As soon as we got our laps back, I knew anything was possible,” Earnhardt said. “We were just drafting back up through there and I think [Harvick] had a flat and just really had nowhere to go. … It was fun. We had a pretty strong car.”