Zane Smith, Austin Hill, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. conquer NASCAR’s Daytona weekend

Part 1: The Craftsman Truck Series Opener

Zane Smith celebrated in victory lane $1 million richer on Friday after heavy mist shortened the first race of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season at Daytona. 

After three red flags and 79 of the scheduled 100 laps, officials declared Smith the winner and called off the race due to weather. It was Smith’s eighth career victory and second at Daytona. 

“I wanted to win it how I did last year, it was a little more exciting,” Smith told the Daytona Beach News Journal post-race. “But if you have the opportunity to stand in victory lane in Daytona, I don’t think anybody’s going to turn that down.” 

Tanner Gray finished second and Christian Eckes came home third. 

The NextEra Energy 250 started with South Florida native Nick Sanchez on the pole in his series debut alongside 2022 Homestead-Miami winner Ty Majeski. 

It only took one lap before a caution came out because of precipitation on the track. There were two cautions in the first 10 laps of the race. Eckes took his No.19 truck to the front to win stage one at the end of lap 20 thanks to some aggressive runs. Post-race, he stated that comfort was the most important factor.

“Obviously going into a speedway race, it’s something I’m comfortable with,” Eckes told NASCAR media. “I’ve always had fast trucks in that aspect and have gotten way better at it, especially recently.”

The intensity picked up and after some close calls, Stewart Friesen blocked the outside line before getting spun on the backstretch and involving five other trucks on lap 41.

GMS Racing driver Rajah Caruth found trouble later on lap 59 when he went three-wide in the middle and made contact with Zane Smith. Caruth lost control shortly after and collected five more trucks to bring out the sixth caution of the night. 

It wasn’t the last type of chaos to hit the speedway, as more rain stopped the race with 27 laps to go while Smith was out front. Officials attempted to restart it, but the consistent misty conditions brought the event to a close.

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will head out West for the second race of the season to Las Vegas on March 3. Fans can purchase tickets here.

Part 2: The Xfinity Series race

Austin Hill celebrates third career Xfinity Series win after the “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner 300” at Daytona International Speedway. (Courtesy of NASCAR)

Austin Hill waited hundreds of feet from the finish line for roughly seven minutes alongside two other cars before officials declared him the winner of Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona. 

The organizing body called off the competition and scrambled to decide the winner of the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner 300” after Sam Mayer’s No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro hit the wall and flipped over on the last lap of overtime.

John Hunter Nemechek moved up quickly on the inside as the caution came out, but was inches behind Hill. Justin Allgaier in the No. 7 was not far behind either.

John Hunter Nemechek, No. 20, and Austin Hill, No. 21, battle for the lead when the caution comes out on the final lap. (Courtesy of NASCAR)

After NASCAR’s decision to end the race, Hill drove into the same victory lane he occupied after last year’s season opener. It was the third win of his Xfinity Series career and second at the World Center of Racing.

“Anytime you win at Daytona, it’s so special,” Hill told SFMN. “It’s our Super Bowl. It’s the first race of the year. It’s all the hype, and a lot of people are here, all the fans are here.”

All three of the cars parked on the front stretch awaiting the organizing body’s decision, but all thoughts were with the 19-year-old Mayer. He was checked and released from the infield care center. 

“I hope Sam is OK, man,” Hill said shortly after the race. “That was a heck of a flip there.”

Nemechek finished second and Allgaier completed the top three. 

Hill dominated a mostly clean stage one, blocking Allgaier in turn 3 on lap 29. Allgaier ended up in an incident shortly after on lap 36 but charged back to the front and in position to win with 20 laps to go. 

“I’ve been short my whole life, so I guess it’s just fitting,” Allgaier said to “To go to the back and have that spin and just battle our way through, it’s crazy how fast our car was tonight and how good we were in traffic.”

Contact between JR Motorsports teammates Josh Berry and Brandon Jones caused the penultimate caution of the night near the end, prompting the overtime restart to decide the race. 

Parker Retzlaff and Myatt Snider finished in the top five. Riley Herbst, Joe Graf Jr., Ryan Sieg, Cole Custer, and Justin Haley wrapped up the top 10. 
The NASCAR Xfinity Series will travel to the Auto Club Speedway for race two of the season on Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. Tickets are available here.

Part 3: The 65th Daytona 500

Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 (right) parking near the start-finish line after winning the 65th Daytona 500. (Courtesy of NASCAR)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the final lap with nothing but a clear track ahead of him in his Camaro ZL1.

He heard the crowd’s roaring echo from the other side of the Daytona International Speedway going into the same turn where he led the pack in for his last win in July 2017. 

Stenhouse came off the final corner and saw the flags, one checkered and one yellow, as he crossed the line to win in overtime of the 65th Daytona 500 Sunday, the longest Great American Race in NASCAR history. 

The 200-lap event was extended to 212.  The driver of the No. 47 led only 10 laps, but grabbed his first cup series victory in five years. He found his way to the front after a pit-road speeding penalty with 17 laps to go, but a large crash in turn two brought out the caution and sparked the Mississippi native back to life.

“Once we sped on pit road, kind of thought our race was over,” said Stenhouse post-race. “I felt like once the caution came out, I really had to kind of put my elbows up and get back to the front to give us another shot to win. So I at least could tell my guys that we had a shot.”

A later spin caused a restart with two laps to go in which  Stenhouse ran behind Joey Logano and got in front of the reigning series champion on the backstretch before the caution came out again. A plume of smoke filled turn three as 13 cars crashed, prompting another restart.

In NASCAR overtime, there are unlimited attempts to finish the race if the leader cannot get to the white flag under green. The race is called official if either the leader gets to the checkered flag under green flag condition or if a caution is thrown during the white- flag lap. 

The final option was the one that was exhausted on the last overtime attempt when Travis Pastrana careened into Kyle Larson, forcing officials to throw the yellow flag and end the race. Stenhouse was slightly in front of Logano as they made their way back to the front stretch. 

Second-place Loganowished the race would have stayed green until the very end. 

“You think you’re racing to the checkered flag and you put yourself in the best position to try to win at the start-finish line,” Logano said to NASCAR media. “You wish you could race to the end. Obviously you can’t when they wreck that much.”

Stenhouse, who has been driving for JTG Daugherty Racing since 2020 expressed his gratitude for the team, reminiscing about their moments during the off-season leading up to the win. 

“[They] had a video put together, and it put some of JTG’s wins in there, my wins in there, and kind of helped us realize that ‘hey, we need these wins together’ and realized that we could do that,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve both done it in our past, so it’s special to do it together.”

During the post-race press conference, Stenhouse expressed his elation, detailing the difficulty of winning the biggest event in stock- car racing.

“I knew how long and how important this race was when Tony, my former boss, tried to win this race for a long time,” said Stenhouse. “I know how hard it is for guys to win this race, and it’s nice to go ahead and get that checked off the list.”

One notable name to grace Daytona’s “World Center of Racing” this year was seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson who returned to the speedway after two years in Indycar. The 2006 and 2013 Daytona 500 winner took on a new role as co-owner and part-time driver for Legacy Motor Club. He finished 31st in the Great American Race and plans to run five more races in 2023.

The 2014 cup series champion Kevin Harvick finished 12th in what might be his final Daytona 500. He announced in January that he will be retiring after the 2023 season. 

Travis Pastrana, X-games gold medalist, swapped the stunts for speed and made a one-off attempt at the 500 with a third entry for 23XI Racing, finishing 11th. 
The cup series will move to Southern California’s Auto Club Speedway for the start of NASCAR’s west coast swing with the Pala Casino 400 on Feb. 26. Tickets are available here.

Kenneth Bueno is a junior majoring in the Digital Broadcasting field. He is a sim racing commentator for Podium eSports and aims to apply his love for sports into the sports broadcasting industry after graduating.