DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - In a matter of minutes, rookie John King went from wrecking the leader to celebrating in Victory Lane.
One was way more enjoyable than the other.
King turned leader Johnny Sauter around on the second of three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish and later held on to win a wild Truck Series opener at Daytona International Speedway on Friday night.
It was King’s first NASCAR victory in eight starts and just his third career win in any feature race. He previously won a late-model race on a dirt track and a late-model stock-car race _ both in Virginia.
“It’s unbelievable, a dream come true,” King said.
Timothy Peters finished second, giving Red Horse Racing a 1-2 finish in the series opener. Justin Lofton was third, followed by Travis Kvapil, Jason White and Todd Bodine.
The race had several wrecks, none more harrowing than the final one when Joey Coulter went airborne and hit the fence between the track and the grandstands. Coulter’s truck lifted off the ground, hit the mesh fencing and then spun back across the track.
Coulter emerged a few minutes later unharmed and bowed to the crowd. A track spokesman said two fans sustained minor injuries from debris.
Earlier in the night, Miguel Paludo slammed head-on into an inside wall and walked away unscathed.
King’s reputation might not fare as well.
He punted Sauter without any assistance from anyone around him, setting off an 11-car melee behind him. King sat in his truck during an 11-minute red-flag stoppage and was upset with what had just unfolded.
“I’m a rookie,” King said afterward. “I’ve never pushed in my life. This is my first time at Daytona or any Superspeedway. I apologize to him from the bottom of my heart. It wasn’t my intention at all. I couldn’t get off of him.”
Crew chief Chad Kendrick spent several minutes trying to calm down his driver, getting him refocused on the final restart and the checkered flag. King responded better than anyone could have imagined, staying in front of Peters until the final caution.
“I’m telling you, this is probably one of the nicest did guys you’ll ever meet,” Kendrick said. “When the caution came out, you could hear the concern in his voice, like he was truly almost sad about wrecking Johnny. I told him we’d worry about it at the end of the race. We had a race to run; we still had laps to go. At that point, we were legitimate contenders. That was Daytona. That happens at Daytona. It’s happened a million times. It will happen again.
“So we both hate it for Johnny. But it was a racing incident.”
King’s best finish in seven previous starts in the Truck Series was 15th.
Team owner Tom DeLoach surrounded King with series veterans, hoping for the best.
“We kind of put a big warm blanket around John and tried to maximize his ability,” DeLoach said. “Folks, you see what happened tonight.”
Truck racing at Daytona usually involves wild wrecks and can be anyone’s race to win, and this one was no exception.
Paludo was running third when he just lost control of his truck. He turned left and slammed into the inside retaining wall head on _ a violent crash that caused his truck to spin like an out-of-control helicopter. All four tires left the ground and the engine caught fire before Paludo eventually came to a stop.
He climbed out a few seconds later and was unharmed.
“It was a hard hit for sure,” Paludo said. “I lost my breath.”
The drivers raced three wide early on, and not surprisingly, didn’t make it 20 laps without an accident.
On lap 19, rookie Paulie Harraka lost control in turn four, made contact with Chris Cockrum and then slammed Jason Leffler into the outside wall. Leffler’s truck was totaled, taking out one of the favorites in the 36-truck field. Rookie Dakoda Armstrong also was collected in the wreck that prompted several drivers to turn down pit road to avoid the mess.
“It’s a bummer,” said Leffler, who finished last.
Another rookie, Cale Gale, was caught up in a wreck on lap 62.
Gale was running in the middle of a three-wide pack when TJ Duke moved up the track and caused Gale to hit the wall. Series veterans Matt Crafton and Mike Skinner also were involved.
“You can’t teach patience,” said Skinner, the 1995 series champion.
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