At the end of the 53rd Daytona 500 Sunday, the proof was in the pushing for many, but none so much as David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte whose third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, were breakthroughs.
"There's no question in my mind Front Row Motorsports is going to be the most improved team in Sprint Cup this season," Gilliland said after posting his best finish in 84 races, or since he was runner-up at Infineon in 2008. More importantly, it was only Gilliland's third top-five in 151 career starts. "I have to thank [owner] Bob Jenkins. He does this out of his pocket. He owns these Taco Bells and it is a great day for Front Row Motorsports. This tops up as one of my best days ever for sure."
Those are strong words from a young man who burst onto the NASCAR national scene with an unlikely Nationwide Series win for an unsponsored owner in 2006. But considering the level of Cup racing, and the legend of the Daytona 500, Gilliland said he was looking at at least a near-eclipse of that accomplishment.
"It's right up there," Gilliland said. "Without the first one [Kentucky win], I wouldn't be here to finish third, but definitely, really exciting. I finished second at Infineon [in 2008 for Robert Yates Racing] and that was good, but I think this one tops that -- it's Daytona and I'm just really proud of our team.
"At media day last week I told a bunch of people that you can look for Front Row Motorsports, I think for sure, to be the most-improved team from last year. We've stepped up our motor program to run the FR9 motors and Bob Jenkins bought a bunch of cars from RPM and it really has taken us 10 steps ahead on the competition side, so I'm really proud of that.
"I'm proud of weathering the storm last year and now we have a top-three finish at Daytona for not only myself, but Bob Jenkins. He's put a lot [into this]. He does this deal out of his pocket and to come and do that and be here with this success is something to be proud of."
Labonte's hoping JTG Daugherty Racing might give Front Row a run for the unofficial "most improved" title. The stunning finish, which became a little bit typical during this odd-from-beginning-to-end Speedway, resulted in Labonte's first top-five finish since Las Vegas in 2009, when it was the third race of the season. It was only the sixth top-five in 73 starts for JTG Daugherty.
Even though the result was the culmination of everything he'd hoped for when he announced he was switching to the team owned by Tad and Jody Geschickter and Brad Daugherty, Labonte found it an effort to be too gleeful.
"It means a lot [to start the season like this]," Labonte said. "People are going to criticize me for not laughing or smiling enough or whatever -- but I was still disappointed we didn't win this Daytona 500. That's going to bother me probably for a little bit.
"These guys did a great job [Sunday]. We battled back from a near spin over there and we got a top-five out of it. [Sunday] was such a wild day. It was just a little bit too wild at times, so to survive, I think, was a big thing."
Speedweeks proved nothing if not that partnerships were everything. Labonte hooked up with the youngest Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, at just the right time, on the second of two green-white-checkered finish attempts.
"I hooked up with the 21 [Bayne] right here before we ever got to the start/finish line and pushed past the white flag," Labonte said, "and the guys back in the back were jockeying around. Obviously, I saw them coming and I went into [Turn] 3 and I was just probably a quarter of a car-length up too high.
[Carl Edwards] was going so fast [being pushed by Gilliland] -- he had a run on us. Congratulations to Trevor and the Wood Brothers -- that's awesome for those guys. We came home with a top-four so that was good, [because] it was a little wild out there today."
The wildness couldn't have come at a better time for Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion who has yet to make the field for a Chase, the championship format that's been in place since 2004. With a new point system in place, and now sitting third because Bayne is ineligible for Cup points, Labonte was thrilled even if he wasn't smiling much.
"It's real important [to get off to a good start with a new team]," Labonte said. "In the points and the way the points are and everything. Attitude is everything and these guys have great attitudes.
"Frankie [Kerr, crew chief] did a great job [Sunday] calling pit strategy -- four tires, no tires sometimes. We had track position, we didn't have track position; it was just pretty wild out there, obviously."
But in the end, Labonte knew what to do -- even if the style of racing had never been seen at Daytona.
"Trevor had a fast car and we saw that all weekend long," Labonte said. "We were able to come home with a top-five and that was awesome for these guys."