Tony Stewart rebounded from having his qualifying times deleted for a technical infringement and losing his hard-won front row starting position, to winning the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway under the floodlights on Saturday evening.
The race started with a moment of high drama off-track, with news of AJ Allmendinger's suspension forcing Penske Racing to fly in replacement driver Sam Hornish Jr. from North Carolina. Hornish was sped in from the airport with just three minutes to spare before the cars started to roll off pit road, and the team were still strapping him in while the rest of the field carried out their routine formation laps.
After that, it was down to routine business with Matt Kenseth leading the field to the green flag alongside Stewart's team mate Ryan Newman who had inherited his boss's front row position when Stewart was sent to the back of the field for the start.
Surprisingly given the nature of draft racing at Daytona, Kenseth had no trouble leading uninterrupted for the first 41 laps of the race, thanks to linking up early with his current Roush Fenway team mate Greg Biffle. Other drivers were employing different strategies: Jeff Burton was heading to the safety of the back of the field where he linked up with his similarly-minded Richard Childress Racing team mate Kevin Harvick, who could have been forgiven for having his mind elsewhere after being on amber alert for his wife DeLana being close to giving birth to the couple's first child.
The leading dozen cars were running in single file and covered by less than a second all told, with the biggest problem early on being Kyle Busch's radio comms glitch preventing him from talking with his pit crew. Other drivers were getting concerned about escalating water and engine temperatures, but that's just the usual background mood music for any Daytona Cup race.
Kenseth finally gave up the lead when it came time for the first round of green flag pit stops. Kenseth came out of that cycle in sixth place, with the top five taken up by Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it only took a couple more laps before Kenseth found his team mate again and pushed him to the front, and Biffle stayed out front through to the next round of pit stops despite Kenseth finding pushing was harder on his water temperature than being pushed at the front had been.
Those next pit stops coincided with the first caution of the day on lap 81 just after mid-distance, triggered when Sam Hornish Jr. had a tyre blow on the #22 and spun him out of turn 2. Despite stopping under the slightly calmer conditions of the ensuing yellow, there were problems on pit road for Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon who made contact as they swerved to avoid Kasey Kahne exiting his own pit box: the collision was hard enough to spin Newman into Brad Keselowski's parked car in its stall, where the #2 was being worked on after hitting debris from Hornish's accident. Fortunately, no pit personnel were injured in the aftermath of the fracas.
Kenseth and Biffle were back in charge of the race once again when green flags resumed on lap 86, but there was a second caution of the night just five laps later when Kurt Busch tried a move down the middle, tapped Trevor Bayne and sparked an accident that also involved Bobby Labonte and Denny Hamlin among others. Perhaps fittingly, Busch's #51 car ended up the most beaten up and distinctly worse for wear.
“Kurt was just racing hard,” said Busch's crew chief at Phoenix Racing, Nick Harrison. “The way you race in packs here, it's really tight. When guys are trying to battle over the same territory, that sort of stuff just happens. It was unlucky and he's down on himself a little bit, but he's fine ... He wanted to win and he wanted to sweep the weekend, and that's what we love about him.”
The race then ran green for almost 30 laps, with Kenseth leading every single one of them in what was looking like a totally dominating performance for him and Biffle. However, things were starting to pick up pace as the race entered its final quarter: the field was starting to break out of single-file traffic and go three-wide as the jockeying for position got underway in earnest and the drivers started worked diligently to make that middle groove work for them in just the way that it hadn't yet been able to for Kurt Busch.
While Kenseth had stolen the limelight till now, there were growing threats moving into place behind him. One of them was Tony Stewart, who had worked his way up from the back of the grid to seventh place, and two others were Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But it was not to be Johnson's night: on lap 125, he was involved in the first big multi-car wreck of the night along with Jeff Gordon, Regan Smith, Bill Elliott and Joey Logano in turn 4: the #48 was driven into the inside SAFER barrier where it made a big impact and the front of Johnson's car scrunched up like a cheap cartoon accordion.
"We were all getting ready to pit so I was waving my hand out the window down the backstretch through 3 and 4," explained Johnson. "As soon as I let off the gas to come to pit road, someone got into the back of me. I don't know if they didn't see my hand waving or what really went on, but I was just trying to get slowed down to come onto pit road and I got hit from behind. I went down on the inside wall. As I was spinning, I could see a lot of other cars were collected too."
The timing was a disaster for the two men who had dominated the race up till then: Biffle had been heading to pit road when the accident broke out and was too late to abort, meaning he got a penalty for coming in while pit lane was closed. That set him all the way back to 18th place, and broke up his effective partnership with Kenseth who dropped down the field to rejoin him, but at the cost of losing a lot of track positon just as things were heating up.
Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart were at the front for the restart on lap 131 with Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin in support. Stewart won the battle for the lead at the restart and went in front for the next 20 laps, but clearly worried about the possibility of getting ganged up on by the swelling number of Joe Gibbs Racing team mates in his rear view mirror. And there was another worry as well, with Kenseth and Biffle moving their way determinedly back toward the front and switching to using the high line to do it.
There was a brief caution for Keselowski spinning on the backstretch on lap 144, but that only delayed the inevitable confrontation for the lead between Stewart and Kenseth for the lead which came on lap 151. Kenseth had just about pulled off the pass when a trademark Daytona multi-car wreck erupted behind them: seemingly triggered by slight contact between Biffle and Hamlin, which then got Hamlin loose and shooting down into his JGR team mate Kyle Busch after which it was just mayhem as the rest of the field piled in. Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Trevor Bayne, Jamie McMurray, David Gilliland, Marcos Ambrose and Terry Labonte were all caught up in the incident.
That set up a final two-lap showdown between Kenseth and Stewart for the win. Despite still having the #16 of Biffle as his drafting support, Kenseth in the #17 found that he couldn't match Stewart's pace on the outside line. With help from Kasey Kahne, the #14 car disrupted the smooth hook-up of his Roush rivals and was able to pull out into the lead as they ran the final lap - and then the race was over, the chequered flag flying for Stewart as carnage erupted once again right behind the leaders. This time the casualties included Biffle, Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Terry Labonte, Aric Almirola, Jamie McMurray, Travis Kvapil and others. It was going to be an expensive night at the bodyshop.
But the accident had come late enough that no green-white-chequered restarts were required: the race was officially run, and Tony Stewart had won.
“The biggest challenge was the #17 and #16 cars - when they hooked up, I don't think there was anybody that could beat them,” Stewart admitted of Kenseth and Biffle's formidable combination. "But we were able to stay in touch with them, and I got a great restart with Kasey Kahne helping me.
"We just had to try to separate the #17 and #16 there. And once we got them pulled apart, I think Matt tried to reconnect with Greg, and we carried enough momentum to get back around in front of him and get down on that bottom line," he said. "I tried to back up to Matt to make sure they didn't get a huge run on us. They were coming on the outside in three and four and the last wreck happened, and we were just fortunate enough to be leading still.”
A surprise second place went to Jeff Burton, almost anonymous all evening until the late wrecks presented him with an opportunity to sneak through.
"I'd like to say it was skill," laughed Burton of his manoeuvring around the wrecks which caught out his drafting partner, Kevin Harvick. "But a lot of it is luck!"
Kenseth had to settle for third place despite having led for 89 of the 160 laps, and it was little consolation to him. "I'm really disappointed. We thought we had one of the best cars. I was hoping it was gonna be me or the #16 in victory lane. I don't know, it's hard to figure out.
"I got separated from Greg because they pulled him off me," he explained. "I should have just stayed on his door and stayed with him and let the chips fall where they may, but I didn't know what else was coming so I slowed up to try to bring Greg with me because he had been so good all night and I was hoping to get a run."
He added: "I'm happy to get third, but yet on the other hand I'm incredibly disappointed because I feel like my team kind of deserved to be down there holding the hardware and I kind of let them down."
Third place was still plenty good enough to keep him at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings, and indeed he almost doubled his points margin over those of his rivals caught up in the late wrecks.
In all, Tony Stewart has now won four Cup races at Daytona and 18 races here in total: "I wish I could explain it,” said Stewart of his success at this type of track. "The great thing about restrictor plate racing is that 43 cars all have the same shot at winning the race, but that's also part of what makes it frustrating, too. It's just being at the right place at the right time, and when those last two big wrecks happened, we were in the right spot. We were ahead of them both times."
But none of them have ever been the big one, the Daytona 500, NASCAR's most prestigious event of the entire year. And it's won the former Indy Racing League champion dearly wants, since he also never got to win the famous Indianapolis 500 either.
"I'll trade 'em all in for just one Daytona 500," admitted the reigning Sprint Cup champion. "This is 18 wins at Daytona, we just haven't got the right one yet. But all of them are special, and it's cool to do this."Full race results