DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Daytona 500 has come and gone, and the 2016 season is officially underway.
Here’s what we learned in the process.
ELLIOTT GAINS EXPERIENCE
The rookie got off to a fast start, leading the first three laps of the event before being passed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Still he maintained a top-five position until a Lap 20 incident forced him to the garage due to damage.
“It had been such a fun week and you hate to end the race before it even got started,” Elliott said. “Just disappointed for everybody.”
But thanks to quick work by the No. 24 NAPA AUTO PARTS team, Elliott was able to return to the track and ultimately run 160 of the 200 laps in the event – valuable experience as he embarks on his rookie NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign.
“We will just have to look past it and get on to Atlanta,” he said. “That is the most important thing now. Can't get caught up in what happened today -- it is irrelevant now.”
Earnhardt echoed that sentiment, noting that the season kickoff isn’t always the best barometer for what is to come.
“Speedweeks has always been a little bit different -- not a true measuring stick of what the rest of the season might look like,” Earnhardt explained. “The season starts here, but, yeah, we won't be taking any of these notes anywhere but to Talladega.”
EARNHARDT THROWN A ‘CURVEBALL’
Starting from the third position, Earnhardt had similarly high hopes for the No. 88 team in the Daytona 500, especially with the Nationwide Chevrolet SS known as “Amelia” on the grid.
By Lap 4, he had taken over the lead, and he would go on to lead 15 laps in the race. Though he fell back in the pack later in the event, he knew when there were less than 50 laps left that “it was time to go.”
“We were moving forward,” Earnhardt recalled. “We had passed about four or five cars there in the last three or four laps. We were making up some ground.”
But just as he was attempting to jump back into the top five, his run came to an end with 30 laps remaining.
“It caught me by surprise,” the driver said. “I was trying to side-draft a guy beside me and boy, it pinned the right front, all the downforce there.”
It caused Earnhardt to spin out, and the incident ultimately ended his day. He was scored 36th, and said the handling of the No. 88 Chevy SS was even more important than the team anticipated.
“A huge shift from last year and the years before,” he explained. “The balance of the car was a big curveball today.”
“We’ve had a rocket all week,” he continued after the race. “Just got loose trying to do too much at once.”
KAHNE, JOHNSON PROUD OF THEIR CHEVROLETS
At the end of a wild final few laps at Daytona, Kasey Kahne became the first Hendrick Motorsports teammate to take the checkered flag, doing so in the 13th position.
Jimmie Johnson wasn’t far behind, taking home a 16th-place finish.
Both drivers acknowledged that their days could have gone better, but were proud of their teams for everything they put into the Chevrolets that hit the track for the Great American Race.
“We had a really good Farmers Insurance Chevy,” Kahne said. “(Crew chief) Keith (Rodden) made good adjustments during the race, but we needed to be closer to the front at the end."
Johnson similarly wished he had better positioning to make a final run toward the front of the pack as the race wound down, but nevertheless left Daytona ready to take on the rest of the 2016 campaign.
“That didn't go our way today but the Lowe's guys gave me a great Chevy and worked so hard this week,” he said. “I'm excited about this season with this team."