Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2019

One Move Sends The Daytona 500 Spinning

Paul Menard has been driving race cars since he first climbed into a go-kart in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin when he was just eight years old. Growing up in a state that has real winters, Menard drove his first ice race at the age of fifteen. But while he still participates in International Ice Racing Association events every year, the now thirty-eight-year-old Menard’s day job for the past decade and a half has been a driver at the very top level of stock car racing, now named for its current sponsor, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

In 435 Cup Series races over those fifteen years, Menard has crossed the finish line first just once, at the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That was in his first of seven seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing. The hard economics of this incredibly expensive sport forced RCR to downsize from the maximum four car stable after the 2017 season, and Menard was briefly out of work before signing on with tiny Wood Brothers racing. Driving the #21 Ford, the only car the Wood Brothers can afford to field, Menard had a fairly successful 2018. While he didn’t manage to add a second victory, he did post seven top-ten finishes, starting with a sixth-place effort at last year’s Daytona 500.

For NASCAR fans Menard’s name will always be closely associated with this year’s 500, but not because he is one of the more popular drivers on the circuit (which he is), nor because he took the checkered flag (which he did not). Rather Menard will be remembered for a split-second decision with nine laps to go that completely changed the character of NASCAR’s biggest event.

For more than 480 miles this year’s Daytona 500 was a closely fought battle between what were expected to be dominant Fords and teams running either Toyotas or Chevys, who chose to team up whenever possible to offset the superior speed of the cars sporting the familiar blue oval nameplate. On lap 191 around the two-and-one-half mile tri-oval, Kyle Busch in a Joe Gibbs Chevy was out in front as the crowded field headed into turn 3. That was when Menard tried to duck underneath the #95 of Matt DiBenedetto. Like Wood Brothers, the Leavine Family Racing’s #95 Chevrolet is a one-car team, with DiBenedetto in his first season behind the wheel. Despite an undistinguished Cup Series career over parts of six seasons, DiBenedetto had led forty-nine laps of the 500, and both he and Menard were still in the top five as the race wound down.

But all that changed in an instant. The #21 just grazed the left rear of the #95, and that was enough to turn DiBenedetto sideways. At speeds approaching 200 miles an hour and running in close quarters, the carnage quickly spread through the field. As sparks flew and smoke billowed from the growing number of wrecking automobiles, race analyst Darrell Waltrip spoke for millions of racing fans on Fox when he exclaimed “Oh no! Are you kidding me?”

As the smoke slowly dissipated and damaged cars rolled to a stop, some on the track and many down on the infield, it became apparent why racing’s high-banked superspeedways are frequently the scene of “the Big One,” a massive accident involving multiple cars. Even with restrictor plates and despite the enormous skill of the drivers, a human being simply can’t react fast enough to steer out of the way.

Thus, what began with the softest kiss of sheet metal between Menard’s Ford and DiBenedetto’s Chevy ended with eighteen cars, nearly half of the original forty-car field, involved in the wreck and suffering varying amounts of damage. A handful were able to continue after hasty repairs on pit row, but most were carted off by wreckers to the infield garages. Miraculously, and in what is surely a testament to the many safety features that NASCAR has added to both cars and tracks in the last decade, all the drivers, even those in cars that were virtually destroyed, were able to walk away from the mess.

When racing resumed it was as if the Big One opened the gates for reckless driving. Just a few laps later Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers, tried to steer his #17 between the two cars in front of him, driven by Kyle Larsen and Kevin Harvick. The only problem was that there wasn’t remotely room for Stenhouse’s Ford Mustang, and the move sent Larsen up into the wall and Harvick spinning. By the time that wreck was finished a total of seven cars had been damaged. Then with just a couple laps remaining Clint Bowyer ducked under and passed Michael McDowell but moved back over before he was fully clear of McDowell’s car. The result was yet another multi-car mess, with eight contestants damaged.

By the time the 500 was over there were only eighteen cars till running, and only three of those were free of any damage. One belonged to the unlikely Ross Chastain, who had a one-race contract for the 500 and managed a very respectable tenth place. The other two were the cars of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who not surprisingly finished one-two. With teammate Erik Jones finishing third, it was a top-three sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing, the first time one team swept the top three places since Hendrick Motorsports did it behind a young Jeff Gordon in 1997.

That result made for a fitting tribute to J.D. Gibbs, the oldest son of the team owner and the family member who ran the racing operation until his untimely death just last month. Perhaps years from now that remarkable finish is what racing fans will remember about the 2019 Daytona 500. Far better that than the instantaneous and ultimately ill-advised move by a journeyman driver; a move that turned the finish of this year’s 500 into a demolition derby.

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