Heading into the 2009 season, many questions surrounded NASCAR. Could Jimmie Johnson win a fourth-straight championship?…would Jeff Gordon get back to victory lane?…would the entire sport be in trouble because of the economy? Heading into Speedweeks at Daytona, these questions among others loomed.
However, when it came time to focus on the tasks at hand, it was all about the Daytona 500…the biggest race of the season. One week before the race, it was qualifying. Only the top two spots would be locked in on this day, as it was Martin Truex Jr. in the Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolet taking the pole. Outside of him was Mark Martin, returning for a full season at the wheel of Rick Hendrick’s #5 Kellogg’s/CarQuest Chevrolet.
The rest of the field was set on Thursday in the Gatorade Duels. The first duel saw Jeff Gordon and his new “firestorm” DuPont Chevrolet take the victory, which was the first time Gordon had been to victory lane since Charlotte in 2007. It may not have been in a point’s race, but he was excited to be back in the winner’s circle. The second race saw the dominant driver from last season, Kyle Busch; hold off Martin to take the victory in his Joe Gibbs M&M’s Toyota.
Unfortunately, during the second race, Ryan Newman in his U.S. Army Chevrolet, which is owned by teammate Tony Stewart, was involved in a wreck, forcing him to head to his backup car. Then, during the final practice session on Friday, Newman blew a tire and destroyed his backup car along with Stewart’s car. This forced both to go to backup cars, the second one for Newman, and put them at the rear of the field for the race. By the time the Daytona 500 came Sunday afternoon, a total of seven cars had to go to the rear of the field because of going to backup cars.
Finally, after all the team and driver changes during the four-month break, the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season got started as the 1982 winner of the Daytona 500, Bobby Allison, waved the green flag. Truex and Martin led the first two laps, until Busch overtook Martin down the backstretch on lap 3, a lead which he held for quite a while.
The caution flag flew for the first time on lap 8 when the 8 car of Eric Almorola spun in turn 3. This was an early opportunity for the drivers to pit and work on their cars. The leaders came in except for Busch, Martin and twelve others including Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Bobby Labonte.
After the restart on lap 11, Busch set out to be the dominant car much like he was all of last season. He led until lap 26 when NASCAR threw the caution flag, which was a predetermined caution due to no practice on Saturday. Every driver came down to pit road for service, but it was Busch holding the lead after stops.
The green flew on lap 30 and Busch once again dominated the field holding off both lines of cars around the race track. It wasn’t until lap 53 when Busch was forced to yield the lead to a hard-charging Earnhardt Jr. One lap later, new car owner Stewart put his Office Depot Chevrolet to the front of the field. A cut tire on the Yates Ford of Travis Kvapil put the caution out again on lap 55, and pit stops jumbled the field. Earnhardt Jr. had to pit twice because the first time down pit road he missed his stall, putting him at the rear of the field.
The restart on lap 60 had Stewart in front followed by Busch, Gordon, Edwards, and the #44 Dodge of A.J. Allmendinger from Richard Petty Motorsports. Busch retook the lead a lap later. Gordon challenged for the lead for a while but never officially led the race until lap 70, and then Busch took the lead again a lap later. Busch’s teammate, rookie Joey Logano, brought out the race’s third yellow flag after slamming the inside wall in his Home Depot Toyota.
Pit stops kept the field the same, but now it started to become a race to the halfway point as rain was in the area. The restart on lap 85 became a sprint to lap 100 to make it an official event. Busch led the field the entire distance until the first pit stops began under green. It started when Gordon’s Chevrolet came down with tire troubles, followed by other drivers such as teammate Jimmie Johnson, Sam Hornish and Juan Pablo Montoya. It wasn’t until lap 118 when the teams got a break as David Stremme’s Penske Dodge blew a tire and brought out the caution..
Pit stops jumbled the field as it was Elliott Sadler leading the field in his Stanley Tools Dodge followed by Reed Sorenson in the Richard Petty Motorsports #43 Dodge. It only took one lap until the next caution came out. Heading into turn 3, Earnhardt Jr. tried to pass Scott Speed, who blocked the move and caused the Amp Energy Chevrolet to get into his left-rear corner, triggering a multicar accident. Involved in the wreck were the dominant car of Busch, who up to that point led 88 laps and Edwards. In all, nine cars were involved.
The restart came on lap 133, but it only took another four laps for the caution to fly again after Paul Menard hit the wall in turn 2. By this time the drivers knew they were not racing to the finale, but racing the elements. After the restart on lap 142, it was becoming a race against time. On lap 146, Eric Almorola spun down the front stretch after contact with Kasey Kahne. Shortly before the caution flew, Matt Kenseth in his Dewalt Tools Ford passed Sadler for the lead, while Harvick worked his way to second.
Soon, the rain began falling, and it got more steady and heavier with every passing minute. On lap 152 of the 200 lap race, the drivers were brought to pit road and the red flag was posted. NASCAR President Mike Helton, after looking at the radar and talking to the track crew, elected to officially call the race at about ten minutes to seven, giving Matt Kenseth his first win in over a year and owner Jack Roush his first win in the Daytona 500.
It wasn’t exactly the way some fans wanted to see the race end, but Mother Nature had other plans. Overall, it was a good start to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which now shifts to the Auto Club Speedway in California next week.
TOP 10: 1-Matt Kenseth, 2-Kevin Harvick, 3-A.J. Allmendinger, 4-Clint Bowyer, 5-Elliott Sadler, 6-David Ragan, 7-Michael Waltrip, 8-Tony Stewart, 9-Reed Sorenson, 10-Kurt Busch
NOTABLE FINISHES: 13-Jeff Gordon, 16-Mark Martin, 18-Carl Edwards, 27-Dale Earnhardt Jr, 29-Kasey Kahne, 31-Jimmie Johnson, 41-Kyle Busch
CAUTIONS: 8 for 42 laps (8-11, 26-30, 55-60, 78-85, 118-123, 124-133, 137-142, 146-152)
LEADERS: 14 lead changes among 11 drivers: 1. Truex, 2. Martin, 3-27. Ky. Busch, 28. Biffle, 29-52. Ky. Busch, 53. Earnhardt Jr., 54-56. Stewart, 57. Hornish, 58-69. Stewart, 70-81. Gordon, 82-121. Ky. Busch, 122. B. Labonte, 123-145. Sadler, 146-152. Kenseth