DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Natalie Decker rewrote a page in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series record books on Friday night during the season opener at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Decker, a 22-year-old native of Eagle River, Wis., raced to the best finish by a female competitor in Truck Series history under the Daytona floodlights, finishing fifth in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.
She escaped involvement in a 14-truck pileup on lap 98 in regulation, then darted through a wild pack of contenders in NASCAR overtime en route to her first top five and first top 10 in 20 career starts.
The previous high-water mark in the Truck Series for a female driver was Jennifer Jo Cobb’s sixth-place run at Daytona in 2011, nine years ago.
Decker was beaming before she ever reached the waiting microphones at the media bullpen after the race, exuberant despite the fact she wasn’t yet aware of the history she’d made at the end of the race.
After all, it was just 12 months ago at the same race track that Decker found her truck on fire during the opening lap of the NextEra Energy Resources 250, out before she ever really had a chance to compete.
“It was so amazing to be able to come here after last year when we were on fire on the first lap and come here and get a top five. I just think it’s incredible and I’m just so proud of my team and myself,” Decker said on pit road.
Told about the significance of her feat, Decker’s already-wide grin got even a little bit bigger.
“I didn’t even know that,” Decker said. “Wow. That is so cool. That makes me feel very proud. Thank you for telling me that.”
Decker’s road to the impressive result was wrought with near-misses, but she and her Niece Motorsports team stuck to their agenda, and it paid off in the end.
After starting 30th in the 32-truck field, Decker survived a multi-truck incident in turn four with 35 to go and then deftly avoided the dreaded Big One on lap 98 that set up the race-deciding overtime restart.
Once she was in position to start making moves, Decker did exactly that en route to her top-five run.
“From the beginning all the way up to the last two laps, my team just kept telling me to ride in the back, ride in the back … and I was just so bored back there,” Decker said. “I was like, ‘come on, I want to get up there and race and get a good finish.’
“They were so right (about the strategy). Just missing all the wrecks in the last two laps and getting up there and finishing it out and getting ourselves a top five was amazing,” Decker added. “It definitely was a rough year [last year], so to be able to come here to Daytona and get this finish makes me proud and makes me excited to go to the next one in Las Vegas.”
Did Decker always believe she had the knowhow to be able to put together this kind of performance?
Absolutely, she noted with an emphatic nod.
“I knew I was capable of doing this,” Decker said with a smile. “But it’s all about you needing to prove (your worth) to other people and gain their respect. I hope I did that tonight.”