After three long months, the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series began last weekend at the iconic Daytona International Speedway.
Speedweeks began with the Advanced Auto Parts Clash (75 laps) on February 11th with the first win of the season being claimed by Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Penske Ford. Meanwhile last Thursday, the Can-Am Duels, used to decide the starting lineup behind the front row, took place with the first race going to Ryan Blaney (#12 Penske Ford), and the second duel won by Chase Elliott (#9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet).
The main event, the Daytona 500, got underway on Sunday with front row sitters Alex Bowman, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr in the #88 Hendrick Chevy, and Denny Hamlin leading the field to green.
Bowman maintained the lead for the first 16 laps until teammate Elliott got a push from Joey Logano and took first until Lap 58. Kurt Busch, along with Blaney, got a run past Elliott, with Busch claiming the first stage victory of the season.
During the last lap of Stage 1 the first big wreck of the day occurred with Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, William Byron, and Ty Dillon all having to retire. Jones got loose going three wide trying to dodge Ricky Stenhouse Jr. getting against the wall and sent himself spinning, leaving many drivers with nowhere to go.
Stage 2 was dominated by Blaney, who led a race-high 118 laps, to take his first green-white chequered flag of the year. Notably on Lap 102, another big wreck collected Elliott, Keselowski, Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne. This also ended Patrick’s final NASCAR race early. She claimed, “I’m extremely lucky and humbled to have been here one last time.”
As the final stage began, the lights at Daytona started to brighten up the track. The stage was uneventful until rookie Byron, with 11 to go, continued his difficult debut with a spin on the exit of Turn 4, bringing out a late-race yellow.
With just three laps to go it was still Blaney in the lead however in Turn 1, Hamlin (#11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota), caught his rear end and pushed him up the track while stealing the top spot. However, just a lap later, Kurt Busch got loose off of Blaney’s bumper, speared into the wall, bringing out a dramatic caution. Busch collected Bowman, Stenhouse Jr., and Matt DiBenedetto.
Leading the field back to the green-white-chequered restart were Hamlin and Aric Almirola. Behind them were Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher, aggressive and pushy. Almirola received a big push from Austin Dillon, who was also helped by Bubba Wallace in his first Daytona 500, to take the lead.
Almirola took the white flag and looked set for the win until Dillon got a run on the backstretch, spun Almirola into Turn 3, and won the Daytona 500. As Dillon started to celebrate, Wallace pipped Hamlin at the line to secure a second-place finish.
Dillon sent the #3 Chevrolet back into Victory Lane in Daytona for the first time since 20 years ago with legendary Dale Earnhardt. Dillon paid tribute to Earnhardt after the race and made a number 3 in the grass during his celebrations with his crew.
Next week, the Cup Series field heads to Atlanta for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Brad Keselowski will be looking to make up for his Daytona disappointment with back-to-back victories here.