When it comes to racing on Independence Day, the setting could not be more perfect than the “World’s Center of Speed,” the Daytona International Speedway. On the 25th anniversary of Richard Petty’s record 200th-career win, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was ready to take charge racing in the Coke Zero 400 presented by Coca-Cola.
For the second straight week, qualifying was washed out due to rain, which put Tony Stewart back on the pole position. However, this race was considered an “impound” race, meaning that all practices were to take place before qualifying. Come Saturday night, very few changes were allowed to the cars to get ready for the race with the exception of tire pressures and tape. So, when the green flag dropped on July 4, fireworks were sure to happen on the track as well as in the sky.
Stewart managed to jump to the lead on lap 2 after second-place starter Jeff Gordon led the first lap; however as is common with restrictor plate racing, Stewart’s quickly disappeared as Denny Hamlin made a move around his former teammate.
Hamlin held his lead until the first caution flag came out on lap 13. Mark Martin, who at the time was in sixth, slid in front of Matt Kenseth and went spinning down the backstretch. Martin tagged the inside wall and went to the garage for repairs.
The first round of pit stops saw teams make some adjustments for handling. Many of the lead cars were complaining of a tight condition, a common theme for Daytona. The race off pit road saw Stewart regain the lead heading to the green flag.
Stewart led a three-car breakaway between him, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin as they tried to gain some distance on the field. Unfortunately their run was short lived as the caution flew again on lap 28. Casey Mears spun coming out of turn two after David Stremme got loose and slid into his car.
Pit stops again shuffled the field a bit, but what did not change was Stewart holding the lead. When the green flag came out, Stewart was able to pull out to a slight lead, but Hamlin once again came on strong and took the lead coming down the backstretch with a push from teammate Kyle Busch. Stewart got shuffled back to third before getting back in line.
Hamlin managed to keep the lead for 12 laps until Stewart again made his presence felt and began to charge to the lead again. He and Hamlin battled side-by-side for many laps, but eventually Stewart got the position and the field began to follow single-file behind him.
The caution again came out on lap 57 as Sam Hornish had a tire blow out, spreading debris across the race track. Pit stops again shook up some of the field, but again Stewart managed to keep his lead. The Burger King-Old Spice-Office Depot team was on their game on this night and kept their driver, and boss, out front..
Despite Stewart winning the race off pit road, Kenseth made his pit stop just before the caution flag, so when the field made their stops under caution, he picked up the lead. Kenseth held his lead for only one lap as Hamlin took the lead away on the next lap with a push from Stewart.
Hamlin kept his lead until lap 77, as the caution flag flew again for the big wreck of the night. Stremme got turned into the wall on the backstretch, then went into Kasey Kahne and both cars went across the race track. The smoke from their tires blocks the view of many of the drivers. After the smoke had cleared, a total of 13 cars were involved in the wreck. Among the drivers caught up in the accident were Dale Earnhardt Jr, Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman.
The field once again came down pit road for service, but once again it was Stewart taking the lead back on pit road.
On the restart, Stewart again got good momentum to pull out on the field, but Hamlin was not going away and took the lead away one lap later. Hamlin put himself in good position to hold off his competitors, but the caution flag flew again, stopping his momentum. This caution came because of David Reutimann blowing a right-front tire in turn two and hitting the wall, spreading rubber and metal across the racing surface.
Stewart’s crew again got their driver back out front as the field was brought back to green on lap 108. On this restart, Stewart was able to hold his position and bring a line of cars with him. When the caution flew again on lap 121 for David Ragan’s spinning car, Stewart did not give up the lead with pit stops. It was almost as if his car was as wide as pit road because no one could get around him.
The field was restarted on lap 126, and Stewart got a major challenge by Carl Edwards as he brought the momentum from the high line to take the lead. Unfortunately, it was short lived as Stewart regained the lead on the backstretch and held on until a debris caution on lap 145.
This would be the final round of pit stops for the night as there was only 15 laps left in the race. The pressure of getting out front did not phase Stewart’s crew as for the eighth time his team got his car out front on pit road.
Stewart led the field to the restart on lap 149, but three laps later the caution came out for the final time as Scott Speed got into the wall in the tri-oval trying to avoid Jamie McMurray. No cars came to pit road and the field was restarted on lap 156 for a five-lap sprint to the finish.
On the restart, the front four broke out to a single file line as it was Kyle Busch, Johnson and Hamlin following Stewart. With two laps left, Busch got a push from Hamlin but could not make the pass, but coming to the white flag Busch pulled out and got around Stewart on the high side. Stewart was able to fall back in line with Johnson in tow.
Down the back straightaway Stewart got a huge push from Johnson and pulled to the bumper of Busch and began attempting to make his run. He could do nothing through the turns, but made his move out of turn four. Stewart went low, but Busch blocked. Then he went high and Busch went to block again, but Stewart already had his nose to the car, and suddenly Busch went head on into the wall as Stewart took the checkered flag, winning the Coke Zero 400.
Behind him, Busch became a wrecking ball as he got plowed into by Kahne and Joey Logano as a huge wreck ensued, damaging at least eight cars. Busch got out of the car and was alright, but he tried to just go to his hauler and get out of the track. However, officials were right there to take him to the care center to be checked out. Busch tried to shy away, but he eventually was taken away via a safety truck.
In victory lane, Stewart was not as jubilant as usual because of how the last lap went down.
“I don’t feel as much gratification from winning this race as I probably should, I guess, because I don’t like the way the outcome happened,” Stewart said in victory lane.
There really wasn’t anything he could do different because of how this type of racing is. Unfortunately, he was just in the inevitable position of being the car that had to wreck the leader to get the win.
Next weekend, NASCAR makes a trip to the \”Windy City\” as it is time to race for the second straight week under the lights at Chicagoland Speedway. This 1.5-mile speedway has provided some exciting moments, and now that the race is run at night, it’s going to be another hot night of racing.
The guy that I am favoring in this race is the same guy who went into the wall on the last lap, Kyle Busch. He won this race last year and has run well at all 1.5-mile race tracks, so he is going to be hard to beat, especially after the carnage that occurred at Daytona.
My underdog for this race is going to be Kevin Harvick. The entire Richard Childress Racing organization has struggled this year, but this is a track that Harvick seems to like. He did win the first two races at this track, but has not made much noise since that time. Maybe this is a track where he can get the team back on track and into victory lane.
Coverage of the LifeLock.com 400 will start at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 11, on TNT. This will be TNT’s last race of the season as ESPN and ABC will take over the following week.
TOP TEN: 1-Stewart 2-Johnson 3-Hamlin 4-Edwards 5-Kurt Busch 6-Ambrose 7-Vickers 8-Kenseth 9-Montoya 10-Sadler
NOTABLE FINISHES: 14-Kyle Busch 15-Kahne 18-Biffle 19-Logano (R) 20-Newman 26-Harvick 28-J. Gordon 38-Martin
CAUTIONS: Eight for 53 laps. Lap 13-16, 28-31, 57-61, 77-82, 102-107, 121-125, 145-148, 152-155
LEADERS: 19 lead changes among nine drivers. J. Gordon 1, Stewart 2-3, Hamlin 4-14, Stewart 15-32, Hamlin 33-45, Stewart 46-47, Hamlin 48, Stewart 49-59, Newman 60, Kenseth 61-62, Hamlin 63-79, Andretti 80-81, Stewart 82-83, Hamlin 84-103, R. Gordon 104, Stewart 105-126, Edwards 127, Stewart 128-158, Kyle Busch 159, Stewart 160
POINTS (Eight races before Chase): 1-Stewart, 2719 points 2-J. Gordon, -180 3-Johnson, -194 4-Kurt Busch, -305 5-Edwards, -402 6-Hamlin, -417 7-Newman, -484 8-Kyle Busch, -485 9-Biffle, -504 10-Kenseth, -518 11-Montoya, -532 12-Kahne, -553