NASCAR's most legendary track has seen giants dominate its annual races. In 1964, both Richard Petty and AJ Foyt won at Daytona International Speedway. Ten years later, Petty and David Pearson captured the two wins. In 1998, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon combined for the two wins.
And now? Your two winners of the Daytona 500 and the traditional Independence Day race are ... Trevor Bayne and David Ragan. Yes, really.
Look, let's take nothing away from either Bayne or Ragan, winning any race, let alone a race at Daytona, deserves respect. But both Bayne and Ragan, unknown and unheralded, respectively, got their first wins at the Sprint Cup level at this track, one that's not normally hospitable to newcomers.
So that raises the question: is a win at Daytona (and, by association, Talladega, the other restrictor-plate track) now more a function of luck than skill?
Once again, the two-car draft, created by the combination of new, smoother pavement and newly sync'ed-up front and rear bumpers, ruled the night at the Coke Zero 400. The race featured a record 57 lead changes (up from 49 in 1974), and many drivers pursued the counterintuitive "hide-in-the-back" strategy. The two-car racing lets almost everybody take a turn at the front, which makes it roughly equivalent to musical chairs at 180 mph: time your run to the front right, and you could hoist yourself a fancy new trophy.
While this race didn't seem to feature quite as many cars charging from the teens to the lead, as has been the case in previous restrictor-plate/dance-partner races, the lead nonetheless did pass from hand to hand to hand throughout the night. And once again, everyone began setting up for "the real racing" with about 35 laps remaining ... which makes one wonder exactly what the point of the first 125 laps is.
Both Bayne and Ragan benefitted from this new track framework, as well as a late push from a former Sprint Cup champion: Gordon and Matt Kenseth, respectively. But as the old saying goes, sometimes you don't need to be Mr. Right; sometimes you just need to be Mr. Right Now.
The race was a remarkably caution-free one until the frenzied last laps, when virtually every car on the track was either caught up in a wreck or barely dodged one. Three separate incidents decimated the field, another reason why many race fans look upon races at Daytona with disdain. If there's a decent chance some of the best drivers in the sport could be taken out completely at random, where's the value in a win?
For Ragan, the Daytona victory was particularly special, coming in his first return to the track since he may well have given away the Daytona 500 in February. Back then, he was black-flagged for changing lanes too soon on the final, furious last-second restart, and he watched as Bayne, the driver tagged as his potential replacement, broke through for the victory.
Ragan indicated after the race that he and his team would have been satisfied with "a win anywhere on the circuit." But he allowed that this race was something special. "Coming back here to Daytona," he said, "learning from our mistake, not making a mistake ... that's gratifying that we were able to prove to the race track that we're better than that."
Of note: the win now vaults Ragan, currently 17th in the standings, into the Chase picture. If the season had ended Saturday night, Ragan would be in and Tony Stewart, just five points out of 10th place, would be out of the Chase. And while a Chase berth might not completely make up for failing to win the Daytona 500, it'd be one hell of a consolation prize.
- David Ragan
- Trevor Bayne
- Daytona International Speedway