DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Clint Bowyer, who followed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, figured he had a pretty good idea why Stenhouse won the Coke Zero 400.
He didn’t have all the stats in front of him, but he knew Stenhouse had the fastest car among those jostling for the victory. Having started sixth in the 40-car field, Stenhouse was the only driver who started in the top 10 to finish in the top 10.
“He’s the fastest car right then,” Bowyer said. “He did a good job getting it to the front, and she set sail. He does a good job of blocking. He’s learned a lot. He’s become a good [restrictor-]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.”
Stenhouse proved that Roush Fenway Racing’s ability to build stout restrictor-plate cars didn’t just rest on the one he wheeled to the victory in May at Talladega Superspeedway. That car is in the possession of Stenhouse, never to be run again, as a gift for his first career win. So Roush Fenway built Stenhouse another rocket of a car, and he found a way to go back-to-back in restrictor-plate events.
“I was really having to lift a lot to keep from running over the cars in front of us,” Stenhouse said. “Even when I was leading, I could run not-full-throttle and be able to keep them at a certain distance. … I was pretty surprised with our damage that we were able to stay up front that last lap and a half.”
That damage came when Kyle Larson cut in front of Stenhouse, who launched Larson into the air but was able to get through the accident with just damage to the nose. Larson took the blame for the wreck.
“It’s luck, it’s hard work and determination by all the guys on our team. … It’s easy to overheat these cars here,” Stenhouse said. “It’s easy to miss something. We are running so hard each and every lap. You have to miss the wrecks. We missed a lot of wrecks.”
Missing the wrecks, for the most part, allowed Stenhouse to take advantage of several drivers with some of the best pieces in Daytona who had their cars in crumpled heaps sitting in the garage. It can create a situation in which the best car stands out even a little more. The nature of the race was so aggressive, Dale Earnhardt Jr. compared it to the gouging on a short track.
Earnhardt, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all had stout cars and all had their days end early.
“You block, you push hard, you do things that you don’t want to do because, hey, it works and it’s a necessity,” Bowyer said. “That’s part of it. You’ve got to block hard. You’ve got to cut people off.
“You’ve got to push hard. You’ve got to stick your nose in there where it doesn’t belong — all the things that you know are capable of disaster, but if you don’t, the next guy is going to, and nine times out of 10, it works. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
With the victory, Stenhouse solidified his spot in the playoffs. Not that there was much question, but with the possibility of 16 winners — there are 10 playoff-eligible winners with now nine races left in the regular season — one win doesn’t guarantee a driver a spot in the playoffs, where wins are the tiebreaker (and then points), as far as who is in and who is out of the 16-driver field.