Column By: JORDAN BIANCHI / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – It was an opportunistic pass, one that ultimately also proved to be the winning pass.
Last July, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was trailing leader David Ragan with two laps remaining in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, but couldn’t find a way to pass Ragan despite multiple attempts to do so. His chance came when Ragan swung his car high to block the charging Ty Dillon, creating a hole on the bottom that allowed Stenhouse to capitalize. Stenhouse cleared Ragan and narrowly won by 0.213 seconds over second-place Clint Bowyer. (Ragan slid to finish sixth.)
“I zigged when I should have zagged,” Ragan said. “It’s tough to block two or three lanes coming to the white flag. I missed it on that run.”
Second-guessing oneself is easy to do at Daytona where close finishes are the norm. Stenhouse’s margin of victory represented the sixth consecutive Daytona race where the difference between first and second was under half a second, and the Roush Fenway Racing driver the eighth different Coke Zero Sugar 400 winner in as many years.
If Stenhouse can repeat Saturday night (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), he would be the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2005-06 to accomplish the feat. But while Stenhouse is expected to be among the contenders, recent history suggests just about anyone in the 40-car field could reach Victory Lane. It was in this race in 2011 that Ragan won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, with Aric Almirola doing the same three years later.
NASCAR’s return to Daytona for its annual summer stop also offers Almirola a chance at vindication after a disappointing end to the Daytona 500 in February. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was leading on the white flag lap when contact with Austin Dillon sent him crashing into the outside wall. Dillon would go on to win the Daytona 500, Almirola finished 11th.
Almirola experienced more frustration last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway where he led a career-high 70 laps only to be stymied by two separate loose wheels necessitating a pair of unscheduled green-flag pit stops. Instead of possibly scoring his second career win with a car he described as the best he’s ever driven, Almirola placed 25th in the race. The winner was Kyle Busch, who triumphed in a classic finish where he and runner-up Kyle Larson slammed and banged several times over the final lap.
“I am really frustrated, but the good news is that our cars are fast,” Almirola said. “We can build on that. We are going to win a race. I guarantee you we are going to win a race. We have to be perfect to do it, though.”
And for Almirola, if that perfect race is Saturday, it might just erase that recent frustration.