February 22, 2014 — race report by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — photo courtesy Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports — DAYTONA BEACH, FL — Memories of one year ago no doubt invaded Regan Smith’s mind coming off Turn Four on Saturday’s final lap at Daytona.
The difference this time was the pusher, and ultimately, the trophy.
Thanks to a well-timed push from 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne coming down into the tri-oval, Smith stormed up the outside lane and took revenge on Brad Keselowski after being turned by Keselowski in the 2013 season-opener, snatching his first-career win at the World Center of Racing by 13 one-thousandths (0.013) of a second. The win was Smith’s fourth-career NASCAR Nationwide Series victory.
Smith took the checkered flag on a last lap pass, the third time a last lap pass has decided the Nationwide Series season-opener in the last four years.
“We never lost the focus,” Smith said in Victory Lane. “We’ve had the same focus all along. It’s good to come out of the box strong like this. This is Daytona. This is tough to win here. I thought I had won last year but didn’t get the win. I’m getting tongue-tied. This is exciting.”
“This is Daytona; it’s a good start to the year. After last year and what happened at the start/finish line I felt terrible. I’m glad everyone came back ok. I’m glad to see the checkered flag at Daytona rather than cause the big wreck. It’s going to be a big year for us.”
Keselowski, who was also looking for his first-ever Daytona victory, just didn’t have enough in the final few yards.
“You know, there’s nothing you can really do except hold it down,” Keselowski said. “You couldn’t do it without a push and Regan got a better push than me. I thought the racing today with the spoiler changes was tougher than the tandem rule but it is what it is.”
Behind that front pair, Bayne came home third after nearly having room to make it three-wide at the finish. Kyle Busch, last night’s Camping World Truck Series winner, led the most laps (44) but ultimately had to settle for fourth, with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Elliott Sadler rounding out the front five.
The 120-lap event was extended one lap beyond its scheduled distance due to a late-race caution and subsequent green-white-checkered finish. Just after the checkered flag, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the back of Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet and sent him up the race track and into the still-roaring pack. Larson collected Joe Nemechek, Ryan Reed among others in Turn One, with severe damage to the Reed and Nemechek machines after Reed could not slow up and piled into the back of the No. 87 Toyota.
This was the second-consecutive year that Larson was involved in a last lap crash, after his car sailed into the catchfence at the start-finish line in 2013.
Reed climbed out of the car under his own power before being taken to the infield care center for observation and treatment following the incident after beginning the day feeling under the weather.
This year’s season-opener was run without the use of the “Two-car Tandem”, outlawed during the offseason by NASCAR officials for the two restrictor-plate tracks – Daytona and Talladega – on the schedule. Drivers could dive in behind another car but could not connect and “lock in place” as in recent years.
Polesitter Dylan Kwasniewski led the field to green, but faded to seventh after the end of the first lap and was never in contention for the win after that. The NASCAR Next standout and two-time K&N Pro Series champion (West – 2012, East – 2013) finished eighth in his Nationwide Series debut.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch commanded much of the first half of the event, leading a combined 72 of the 121 laps on the day amidst a couple of early race cautions that saw Harrison Rhodes lose an oil line early in the race.
On that caution period, Matt Kenseth had significant contact on pit road with the No. 84 machine of Chad Boat that wrinkled the right-front fender of the Joe Gibbs Racing machine, but Kenseth’s team repaired the damage and Kenseth ultimately rallied to finish 13th.
Earnhardt Jr., who was attempting to tie his father and Tony Stewart atop the all-time Nationwide Series win list with a seventh victory, had a long stop on pit road when he came in for the first time at Lap 43 after being on a different pit strategy than the leaders that derailed his efforts. Junior rebounded to finish 11th before sparking the before-mentioned post-checkered flag incident.
While he may not have gotten the driver’s trophy, Earnhardt still received the owner’s trophy in Victory Lane.
“I’m just happy for Regan and this is a great boost for our company,” Earnhardt said. “We are heading in the right direction and this can be a big year for us as well. We are making good changes and it will work out for everybody. I’m glad Regan and Ryan Pemberton (crew chief) are hitting it off very well. It’s going to work out. This is the first time I’ve come down here and had three cars rolling at the end of the race.”
Following the entire cycle of green flag pit stops, Kyle Busch led the field to the halfway point with Ty Dillon in tow before a caution for loose foam in the Turn Two SAFER Barrier slowed the field at Lap 71 and allowed the field to head down pit road for fuel and adjustments.
NASCAR dropped the hammer and backed up their ban on “tandem drafting” on Lap 86 when RAB Racing driver James Buescher was nailed for pushing the Discount Tire Ford of Keselowski. The nose of Buescher’s car was at or under the rear of Keselowski’s car for several seconds, constituting violation of NASCAR’s new rule on that particular kind of drafting. Buescher, who was running ninth, served a pass-through penalty and ultimately came home 16th.
A caution after that call scrambled fuel strategy and the running order again and put Smith in front on the inside for the restart, before another yellow for the spinning car of Ryan Sieg slowed the field. Sieg miraculously did not make contact with the wall or another car, and charged through the field to finish an impressive ninth.
Keselowski finally got the high lane rolling and charged to the lead with ten laps to go, but a crash in the back of the field involving Chad Boat and Eric McClure at Lap 116 set up the green-white-checkered dash to the finish.
In total, five caution periods for 20 laps slowed the 300-mile event, and remarkably, 36 of the 40 starters were running at the finish of the event.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series returns to action next Saturday for the running of the Blue Jeans Go Green 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. That event takes the green flag at 3:45 PM Eastern on ABC.