The Daytona 500 was a different race than it has been in recent years, with the two-by-two pushing strategy that was necessary for anyone that wanted to run well. Nevertheless, initial ratings are showing ratings much-improved from last year, and even above 2009 levels.
One of the other things that stood out was that there were a number of drivers who finished in the top 10, who don't normally finish there. Unfortunately, Fox decided not to give any TV time to them, focusing on more well-known (read: well-sponsored) drivers who finished behind them.
Let's look at a few of them:
David Gilliland - 3rd: Gilliland nearly pushed Carl Edwards to the win, but Trevor Bayne wisely blocked, ensuring his win. He had a 2nd place finish at Sonoma in 2008, but otherwise has had average finishes in the high 20s to low 30s. He didn't show much strength earlier in the race, but survived to the end of the race and drove his Taco Bell Ford Fusion to the highest-ever finish for Front Row Motorsports.
Gilliland was let go by Yates for lack of sponsorship after the 2008 season. He drove most of the 2009 season for TRG Motorsports, finishing out that season in a fourth Joe Gibbs car. He missed the Daytona 500 last year, but drove the rest of the season for Front Row, and finished 32nd in driver points.
Bobby Labonte - 4th: Labonte gave Trevor Bayne the initial push to get out front on the final restart. This was the 2000 champion's first start for JTG Daugherty. He missed wrecks earlier while running mid-pack, preserving his Kroger Toyota for the finish.
Labonte has floated from team to team in recent years after leaving Joe Gibbs. He's driven for Petty Enterprises, Hall of Fame Racing, TRG Motorsports, Robby Gordon, James Finch and brother Terry. This looks to be a more stable environment this year with a solid set of sponsors. Starting off the season with a top five can't hurt.
Regan Smith - 7th. Unlike Gilliland and Labonte, Smith ran up front pretty much all day. Whenever he would get mired back in the pack due to pit issues or strategy, he was pushing someone to the front within a handful of laps. He had worked with Kurt Busch most of Speedweeks, pushing Busch to his Gatorade Duel victory, taking a 2nd place finish. Near the end of the race, Busch was pushed hard into Smith's bumper by Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., causing the Furniture Row Chevy Impala to spin into several other cars. The damage was not extensive, though, and he managed to get a push from Kyle Busch, resulting in his career-best finish, and the highest driver rating in the race.
This is Smith's third season driving for Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing. He had previously driven for Ginn Racing and its successor organization, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., where he nearly drove to victory at Talledega Superspeedway, losing out to Tony Stewart after a controversial double-yellow-line ruling. The team made continuous progress last year, and looks to contend for a top 20 points finish this year.