2014 Daytona 500: Report Card for NASCAR'S Top Stars

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

2014 Daytona 500: Report Card for NASCAR'S Top Stars

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    The 56th running of the Daytona 500 kicked off the 2014 NASCAR season in full on a day in which rain threatened to fall in the Sunshine State. That threat was realized, as the rain fell and lightning cracked across the sky, precipitating a six-and-a-half hour rain delay. The Air Titans got some exercise 38 laps into the race.

    On this first day of school for NASCAR, report cards will be issued.

    For instance, Luke Bryan, a country star, played to a crowded infield at Daytona. While he sung such wistful lyrics like "Pour some sugar in her Dixie cup," he earned an F. So as not to hear him again, perhaps it'd be best to give him a marginally passing score so as not to repeat a grade.

    The Air Titans got an A+, while Mother Nature dropped out of school and took an incomplete.

    Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing's newest hood ornament, said in the pre-race broadcast that the Daytona 500 can make a driver's year. Very true. A win, or at least a strong showing, can set the tone for the rest of the season.  

    And after finishing second in three of the past four Daytona 500s, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second Daytona 500 10 years after his first.

    Grades are based on pre-race expectations, what happened during the 500 and a driver's defining moment.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second in three of the past four runnings of the Daytona 500. He won the race 10 years ago in 2004 driving the Budweiser No. 8. He was coming off a 2013 season in which he had 22 top-10 finishes.

    He's also in his final year with Steve Letarte, his crew chief, who's leaving for the broadcast booth in 2015. Time is short for this tandem, and they were expected to contend starting from ninth from Row 5.

    Every driver in the field wants to win this race—that much is clear. But Junior may have needed to win to reestablish himself as a premier driver on the circuit. After 2013, he appeared to be heading that way.


    What Happened

    With three laps to go, Earnhardt picked up some debris in his grill. It didn't appear to bother his car since he was able to fend off Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin to win the Daytona 500.


    Defining Moment

    After the latest restart, Junior gunned ahead of Jimmie Johnson to cut off his path and maintain the advantage. He was able to keep the lead and fend off Hall of Fame company in his wake.

    Grade: A+

Jimmie Johnson

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Jimmie Johnson and his six Sprint Cup titles started 32nd in Row 16 Sunday. He was the defending Daytona 500 champ, but because he ran out of gas during the Budweiser Duel, causing a nasty wreck, Johnson moved to a backup car for the 500 and had to shuffle to the back of the field.

    He's considered a favorite whenever he starts his engine. He didn't have the greatest of weeks leading up to Daytona, but the No. 48 car is always a player.


    What Happened

    Johnson got serious at about Lap 108 when he took the lead and then remained in the top flight of drivers. He made a climb up the board and led a few laps but faded to fifth in the final lap.


    Defining Moment

    Johnson's climb through the field was spirited, but he couldn't get past Earnhardt.

    Grade: A- 

Danica Patrick

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Danica Patrick won the pole a year ago in her first Daytona 500, led for five laps and finished eighth overall, fading from third in the final lap. This year, she started 27th, then had to drop back since the Go Daddy team had to change out her engine.

    Stewart-Haas Racing is a loaded team, but while Patrick brings a lot of buzz and attention, her winning the Daytona 500 was about as likely as the Empire successfully building a third Death Star.


    What Happened 

    Patrick spent much of her afternoon staring at the bumpers of the cars in front of her. That was before the six-plus-hour delay. Once the race restarted close to 9 p.m. ET, she crept up as high as first place when many of the front-runners hit pit road. She remained steady in mid-pack until...


    Defining Moment

    In a chain reaction, 12-car crash, Patrick's right front bumper got clipped near Lap 150. She lost control, darted across the track and crashed into the concrete. Her car bounced off, then skidded across the apron. Her night ended in 40th place.

    Grade: C-

Jeff Gordon

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Jeff Gordon has won this race three times in his career. Starting sixth from Row 3, he looked to add a fourth 500 win Sunday night.

    Gordon is 12th on the all-time starts list after finishing his 2013 season sixth in the Sprint Cup standings. He's at the Peyton-Manning part of his career: a historically great athlete in his sport looking to layer icing on an already delicious cake. His car was pretty good from the beginning, and a top 10 was likely.


    What Happened

    Gordon was steady the entire night. He started seventh after the delay and remained there for most of the race.


    Defining Moment

    Gordon moved up with Denny Hamlin with 12 laps to go to move into third place, joining Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. With eight laps to go, he moved to the outside and cost himself positioning. He did help Earnhardt kick clear and held on for fourth.

    Grade: A-

Tony Stewart

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Tony Stewart spent the last six months rehabbing a broken leg suffered in a dirt-track race. This was Shaun White getting banged up at the municipal skate park before the X Games.

    But this was Daytona, a track where he's won 19 races, just not the big one. 

    Given Stewart's recovery, his teammates—Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick—likely had a better shot at succeeding in Daytona. Still, his presence was a statement that he's back. His best is yet to come.


    What Happened

    Stewart had issues with his car and spent quite a bit of time in the garage. He came back to the track 27 laps down. 


    Defining Moment

    Yes, Stewart is still winless in the Daytona 500, but that was to be expected. He made it back to the track even though he had no shot at winning. He must be glad to simply be racing again.

    Grade: B-

Matt Kenseth

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Is there a more unassuming driver than Matt Kenseth? He is a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, and starting from Row 2 in the third spot put him in a dangerous position to win a third. He finished second behind Jimmie Johnson in the Chase in 2013 and was always a major factor no matter where he started in the field.

    Of the 43 cars on the track, maybe 15 had a chance at winning, and Kenseth might have sat atop the pile.


    What Happened

    Kenseth did his thing in his understated way to finish seventh. After the delay, he made a steady climb to contend with the leaders. In the end, he just wasn't able to get around the guys in front of him.


    Defining Moment

    Kenseth started 27th after the restart and, with 21 laps to go, cracked second place. Through all his driving and all the wrecks, he managed to stay clean and get his Dollar General car a top 10.

    Grade: B+

Kevin Harvick

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Much was made, and rightfully so, about Kevin Harvick leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing. He joined Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick at SHR.

    Harvick won the Daytona 500 in 2007 and looked to make a major splash for his new team.


    What Happened

    Harvick loomed as a threat throughout the entire night, but he lacked a final kick to get past the top flight of drivers. He moved up through the field, drawing attention from the broadcast booth that he was making his patented closing drive.


    Defining Moment

    Harvick has a reputation of being a closer. With 19 laps to go, he moved up into the top five. On the final lap, though, he hit the wall and got tangled with Kyle Busch.

    Grade: B-

Carl Edwards

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Would Carl Edwards backflip after winning a Daytona 500? Did he ponder the existential question: What's the point of backflipping? We're all just molecules bouncing around at random in an unforgiving Hades. Probably not.

    Edwards started from Row 15 for Sunday's race, 30th overall. Coming off of a 13th-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings in 2013, he felt he had one of the fastest cars he's had for the 500, per Mike Hembree of USA Today. That was lofty talk from Edwards, whose car had been banged up in Daytona's prequel Thursday night. Even so, his team elected to stick with its "A" car instead of heading to a backup. 


    What Happened

    Edwards went for it, at one point taking the lead with 26 laps to go. He see-sawed in and out of the top five before getting involved in a spill at the end of the race.


    Defining Moment

    On the final lap, Edwards drifted back in the field and was part of crash under the shadow of the wire to finish 17th. In the ensuing mess, he puttered across the line along with several other banged-up Chevys, Fords and Toyotas.

    Grade: C+

Clint Bowyer

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Clint Bowyer had a solid 2013. He finished seventh in the Chase and won zero races, but he did pile up 20 top-10s. 

    Bowyer flipped his car during the second Budweiser Duel in a truly fantastic bit of flight. "That was one of the wildest flips I've ever had," he said, via Jeff Gluck of USA Today.

    Jimmie Johnson's car ran out of gas 300 yards from the finish, causing a melee to ensue, with many drivers tearing up their race-day cars. 

    Since he went to a backup car, Bowyer had to move to the back at the race's start. Overcoming that was tough for the driver.


    What Happened

    On Lap 128, Bowyer pulled into pit road with engine problems, and his crew needed to open the hood. Frustrated, he removed his steering wheel and spiked it. He then climbed out of his car and was done for the night


    Defining Moment

    Bowyer's bad luck extended from the Budweiser Duel to the 500. Bowing out on pit road will be his lasting image, an official finish of 42.

    Grade: D

Brad Keselowski

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    Following his 2012 Sprint Cup championship season, Brad Keselowski won one race in 2013 and finished fourth in the Daytona 500, his best finish in four career (at the time) Daytona 500 starts. He started on one pole and had 16 top-10s in 2013.

    Starting 33rd in 2014, Keselowski had the potential to finish atop the list of 43 drivers at Daytona.

    Several drivers dropped back in the field because they either changed their engines too late or busted up their car, so he was assured to move up quickly in the race.


    What Happened

    Keselowski was all over the place in the 500, but he got to the front when it mattered. His Miller Lite car was fast, and when the final caution froze the field on the last lap, he had his bumper just ahead of Jeff Gordon's to finish the race third.


    Defining Moment

    Keselowski had a fast car at Daytona, making his way to the front early. He went for it at the end, managing to beat out Jeff Gordon for third place. 

    Grade: A


Kyle Busch

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    Pre-Daytona Expectations

    What to make of Kyle Busch? No doubt he has, quite literally, the sweetest uniform, what with the M&Ms Snickers and Skittles. 

    Busch won the truck race at Daytona, and the confidence that came with that carried over to a decent effort overall Sunday.


    What Happened

    Busch was in the lead for several laps before the rain and for several after the rain delay. He battled to get back to within striking distance of the front.


    Defining Moment

    The defining moment for Busch was leaving pit road with air gun still attached to his. He was penalized with a pass-through penalty. Busch bounced back and with four laps to go was in fourth place. However, he was part of a crash on the last lap that cost him several spots. He ultimately finished 19th.

    Grade: B