Better Late than Never; Earnhardt Jr. Wins Coke Zero 400by Kyle Pokrefky July 6, 2015 0 comments
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For the first time in 14 years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged victorious in July’s night race at Daytona International Speedway – the Coke Zero 400.
Taking the checkered flag in his second consecutive restrictor plate race, Earnhardt Jr. improved his Chase stock with his second victory of the season that was completed just shy of 3:00 a.m on Monday morning.
Fending off late charges from Denny Hamlin and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. truly was in a class of his own Monday morning – leading 96 of 161 laps en route to his 25th career Sprint Cup victory.
“I felt pretty good about it, to be honest with you,” Earnhardt Jr. said of a green-white-checkered restart that helped seal the win for himself. “Normally I’m a nervous wreck on those green‑white‑checkers but knowing how good our car was I felt like if I could get clear, I should be able to do everything I needed to do. The car was capable of doing everything it needed to do, so I felt pretty comfortable, to be honest with you.
“But Denny certainly made it difficult and he was doing some things that had me nervous, and he got pretty close there a couple times to putting together some pretty strong runs.
“Anytime you see Jimmie back there behind you, you know he’s got the same thing you’ve got, so that’s never good. He was tough all night. It was difficult to get by him and make passes on him for sure.”
The celebration was put on hold early, however, as a vicious crash on the frontstretch as the field was coming to the checkered flag sent Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet into the catch fence.
While Dillon climbed out of his mangled car under his own power and was later checked and released from the infield care center (albeit with bruises on his forearm tailbone), five fans were treated at either the infield care center or at a local hospital.
All fans were reported to have received minor injuries with the single fan to be transported to the local hospital being reported as in stable condition last night.
“It was real frightening,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I mean, you’re just on the verge of tears, to be honest with you, because I think that the first thing that goes through your mind is I saw everything in the mirror pretty clearly, and that car really went up in the air pretty high, and he hit the ‑ I could just see that it was a black object that hit that fence, and so I’m assuming I’m looking at the undercarriage of the car. I’ve never seen ‑ I’ve never really seen a roll cage handle those catch fences very well, and I just was very scared for whoever that was.”
After exiting what was left of the No. 3 Bass Pro Shops/NRA Museum Chevrolet, Dillon, winner of Saturday night’s XFINITY Series race, labelled his crash as a part of restrictor plate racing.
“Coming to the checkered there and [I] thought we had a pretty good run, and going with Jeff, and I think Denny said the 4 turned him and went out, and after that it was just crazy,” Dillon said. “It’s just part of this racing. Everybody is pushing for all they can, pushing, tight pack. I was pushing the 24, the people behind me [were] pushing. It’s just a wad right there at the end, and that’s why these speedway races end and you’re just praying and hoping that you get through it at the end.”
Johnson, the night’s second-place finisher, voiced his amazement that Dillon was still alive following his harrowing flight into the catch fence.
“I’m shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive, what he went through,” Johnson stated. “Just a frightening moment. I saw it in the mirror, and man, I expected the worst when I came back around.
“I’d say maybe the only [crash] that really would rival that would be ‑‑ well, I guess we’ve had two. We’ve had Kyle Larson here in a Nationwide Series car, and then Geoff Bodine in the truck down the front stretch, looked a lot like this one.”
The crash that took place as the checkered flag waved was the fourth big wreck of the night with the first major incident of the race coming on Lap 4 for a crash on the frontstretch that involved nine cars.
The second large crash of the night occurred just after midway through the race on Lap 87 while the third major accident of the night involved 11 cars on Lap 106.
Completing the top-10 of the race behind the Hendrick teammates were Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dillon, Ryan Newman, Trevor Bayne and Clint Bowyer.
The Sprint Cup Series heads next to Kentucky Speedway for next Saturday’s Quaker State 400 – the 18th race of the season.
Currently holding Chase spots entering next Saturday’s race are Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Busch, Matt Kenseth, Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Newman and Bowyer.
Aric Almirola, the 2014 winner of the Coke Zero 400, is the first driver in the standings without a Chase spot – sitting 25 points out of 16th.
Top-10 Finishers of the Coke Zero 400
- 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Chevrolet – Hendrick Motorsports
- 48 – Jimmie Johnson – Chevrolet – Hendrick Motorsports
- 11 – Denny Hamlin – Toyota – Joe Gibbs Racing
- 4 – Kevin Harvick – Chevrolet – Stewart-Haas Racing
- 41 – Kurt Busch – Chevrolet – Stewart-Haas Racing
- 24 – Jeff Gordon – Chevrolet – Hendrick Motorsports
- 3 – Austin Dillon – Chevrolet – Richard Childress Racing
- 31 – Ryan Newman – Chevrolet – Richard Childress Racing
- 6 – Trevor Bayne – Ford – Roush Fenway Racing
- 15 – Clint Bowyer – Toyota – Michael Waltrip Racing
Top-10 in the Drivers Standings after Round 17 of 36
- 4 – Kevin Harvick – Stewart-Haas Racing – 656 | Leader | TWO WINS
- 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Hendrick Motorsports – 593 | -63 | TWO WINS
- 48 – Jimmie Johnson – Hendrick Motorsports – 589 | -67 | FOUR WINS
- 22 – Joey Logano – Team Penske – 581 | -75 | ONE WIN
- 78 – Martin Truex Jr. – Furniture Row Racing – 569 | -87 | ONE WIN
- 1 – Jamie McMurray – Chip Ganassi Racing – 526 | -130
- 2 – Brad Keselowski – Team Penske – 520 | -136 | ONE WIN
- 41 – Kurt Busch – Stewart-Haas Racing – 508 | -148 | TWO WINS
- 20 – Matt Kenseth – Joe Gibbs Racing – 501 | -155 | ONE WIN
- 24 – Jeff Gordon – Hendrick Motorsports – 500 | -156
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PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Laberge/Getty Images