NASCAR: Round 18 – Coke Zero 400, Daytona International – 4 July

One of NASCAR’s top races, the Independence Day night race at Daytona is always tense, absorbing stuff with the cars packed close together and the potential for bumping, big accidents, drama and amazing finishes ever present. And this year was no different – just make sure you read to the final lap!

As the race got underway at dusk, Denny Hamlin proved to be the early dominant driver, first pushing Kurt Busch past Tony Stewart to the front and then claiming the top spot for himself. Jeff Gordon got shuffled out of the tight two-line racing as a result and dropped to 25th before he could slot in again – a salient warning for everyone about the consequences of such close formation running.

The first yellow came out on lap 13 when Mark Martin drifted up the track off turn 2 and into Matt Kenseth. The contact was light, but Martin was sent into a spin and skidded at right angles for a long distance right into a heavy front impact with the inside wall. Juan Montoya got a side impact from Martin along the way but managed to swerve enough to keep the damage light.

After pit stops, Tony Stewart led at the restart ahead of Hamlin, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Marcos Ambrose and Kasey Kahne. Kurt Busch had overshot his pit box, resulting in a delay that put his down to 21st and which also caused problems for Ryan Newman into whose pit box he strayed.

The next yellow came on lap 28, which started with David Stremme getting horribly loose off turn 2 and veering into Casey Mears on the inside. It saved Stremme, but Mears was sent spinning into the infield to finally hit the infield wall at almost exactly the same place Mark Martin had earlier made such an impression.

Tony Stewart’s prime pit position helped him emerge from the pit stops in the lead once again, but when the race went green on lap 32 Denny Hamlin was quick to surge past again while Kyle Busch pulled off an eye watering lane change to also dart past Stewart for second place. Hamlin held the lead until lap 46, and then got into a fierce battle for the lead with Stewart that saw them trade the top spot several times until Stewart finally emerged in control on lap 49 with Busch quickly slotting back into second.

Juan Montoya’s day was continuing to be eventful and not in a good way: he had to pit early on lap 44 with a cut right tyre, that meant he went a lap down shortly afterwards as the leaders sailed past him. He got the lap back with a free pass at the next yellow only to get black flagged for some bodywork damage hanging from the car. It meant losing the lap again, but there was still time to recover.

The third yellow was a result of a blown tyre for the 77 of Sam Hornish Jr which did the car a serious among of bodywork damage and scattered debris along the track. Matt Kenseth had already been in the pits from third place when the caution came out, and as a result took the lead when everyone else came in under yellow: he led the restart from Stewart, Hamlin, Busch and Johnson, but didn’t keep the top spot long before Hamlin once again proved to have the best form at the start of a new stint on fresh tyres, taking the lead on lao 63 and pulling Busch and Stewart through with him.

A big accident erupted on lap 77, when Kasey Kahne bumped David Stremme who spun, collected Kahne – and then triggered a whole series of secondary accidents down the tightly packed field as cars reacted to the accident and just got caught out in the massive amount of tyre smoke thrown up. Eleven other cars got involved with greater or lesser damage as a result: Clint Bowyer, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers, together with David Reutimann who managed to violently compress Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the wall. Earnhardt Jr retreated to the garage, streaming smoke from every orifice. The onboard shot of the floodlights strobing through the smoke looked like a Ridley Scott movie pastiche.

Once the smoke cleared – literally – and the pit stops had cycled through, Stewart was again front of the pack for the restart on lap 83 and flanked by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, with Carl Edwards now in fourth ahead of Johnson. Once more, Hamlin was quick to take the lead back on the following lap.

Tyre wear was increasingly becoming the key issue of the day. Jamie McMurray only made it to lap 99 before having to give up his top ten spot to pit for fresh tyres, and the rest of the field were spared their own green flag stops when a caution came out on lap 102 for a blown tyre on David Reutimann’s car – although in the case of the double zero this was almost certainly the result of damage from his earlier collision with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Whether the car could (or should be allowed to) continue was questionable considering flames were visible licking around the inside of the CoT bodywork when Reutimann came into the pits.

During the pit stops, Stewart once again used his superior pit position to retake the lead from Hamlin, ahead of both Busch brothers and then Jeff Burton in 5th. This time Stewart not only kept the lead at the restart, but the bottom line’s surge saw Hamlin caught out on the high side and shuffled all the way back to 10th on the first green lap.

With the race coming down to the last quarter, new names were starting to make in-roads into the top ten. Marcos Ambrose was up to 4th behind Stewart, Burton and Kyle Busch, while Joey Logano and David Ragan were also starting to featured. Ragan made his impact felt first with an attempt to pass Kyle, which Busch blocked in no uncertain terms; and then by closing up on brother Kurt who had had to lift and started to fall back. As Ragan passed the blue deuce, Busch’s handling was too unstable and the two cars touched Ragan was sent spinning round onto the infield grass, damaging his front splitter and bringing out the sixth caution.

After the latest round of yellow flag pit stops, Tony Stewart once again led away at the restart ahead of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth. But for once, the inside lane proved to be the wrong place to be as the outside line finally had the upper hand. Edwards took the lead , only for Jeff Burton to follow him past Stewart and claim the lead for himself, before finally Stewart came back and bumped Burton out of the draft to reclaim the lead on lap 128. Burton’s woes were compounded when he found his tyre had been cut, forcing him to make an emergency pit stop and effectively ending his hopes of a win.

There was no yellow flag, and the top four started to break away as they ran in tight formation in contrast to the disorganised chasing pack. By lap 145 they were some 3s ahead of 5th placed Juan Montoya who had done well to recover from his earlier problems and going a lap down at one point. But even though the margin they had was impressive, the front runners were still earnestly hoping for a final yellow as tyre wear started to result in some horrible vibrations that threatened to wreck any one of them at any time.

The yellow did indeed come out – for some rather convenient debris – and the leaders got to come in for fresh tyres just in time. The top four came out in exactly the same order they came in – Stewart, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth. But Montoya dropped out of the top ten after coming in too steep into his pit box and needing to reverse to get out around Jeff Gordon’s car in the pit box in front.

The full drama of double file restarts was now revealed for all to see, as the top four all jockeyed for position, drafting and pushing to get their lane out in front. Despite getting a good boost from Johnson, Busch wasn’t able to get around Stewart and ended up dropping a place, slotting in third behind his team mate Hamlin. That might almost have been the race decider, but the restarts weren’t over yet: on lap 152, Scott Speed got jostled in traffic, moved to avoid contact with Jamie McMurray and ended up begging clipped by AJ Allmendinger, sending him into a thumping impact with the wall and out of the race.

It took a few laps to clean up, and the green wasn’t thrown until lap 156. This time the restart saw the inside line of Stewart and Busch once again get the best of things, reversing the position change from the previous restart. Busch was clearly planning his move, and with a little over lap to go he pulled to the outside with Hamlin right behind pushing him past Stewart and into the lead for the first time all night. Now all Kyle had to do was to keep the lead for a full lap – surely he could do it?

Stewart was all over him, and Busch swerved to block – once, twice. It put Stewart’s nose under Busch’s rear bumper and the contact spun the 18 car around. briefly airborne, it hit the wall side-on going backwards, then continued to spin around until it was hit in the rear at high speed by Kasey Kahne whose windscreen and hood were demolished by the impact which also annihilated the rear of Busch’s car. For good measure Busch then got a side impact from his own team mate Joey Logano further down the field as chaos ensued. It was a bruising, battering end to the race for Kyle, but the multiple impacts did at least drive the 18 across the line and mean that Kyle ironically finished in 14th place – even if the car was a total wreck by that point.

Stewart reaped the rewards and took the chequered flag while the mayhem was in progress, followed by Jimmie Johnson – who had never looked to be a threat or to have the fastest car, but as ever played a brilliantly smart strategy that kept him right in touch so that when others fell away, he was there to pick up the rewards ahead of Denny Hamlin.

Stewart however wasn’t happy with the way the win had been earned: “It’s just a bad situation,” Stewart said. “It’s not bad because we’re put in a bad position. It just is what it is. 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.”

“There is nothing to do to stop it,” Jimmie Johnson agreed. “It’s plate racing. We’re damned if we do, we’re damned if we don’t. They’re just racing. Tony didn’t mean to dump him. Same thing with Talladega. It’s just the product of restrictor-plate racing and every time we leave these restrictor-plate tracks, there’s questions about how we can keep from having the big wreck and things like that, and you just can’t. When you run plates and run wide-open all the way around the track, situations like this come around.”

When the winners are worried about the outcome, it’s hard to avoid wondering whether something isn’t rotten in the state of restrictor plate racing. Not that anyone has any better ideas right now, either.

Race results

Pos  Driver              Make        Laps
 1.  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   160
 2.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   160
 3.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      160
 4.  Carl Edwards        Ford        160
 5.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       160
 6.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      160
 7.  Brian Vickers       Toyota      160
 8.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        160
 9.  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   160
10.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       160
11.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        160
12.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   160
13.  David Ragan         Ford        160
14.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      160
15.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       160
16.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   160
17.  AJ Allmendinger     Dodge       160
18.  Greg Biffle         Ford        160
19.  Joey Logano         Toyota      160
20.  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   160
21.  Bobby Labonte       Ford        160
22.  Robby Gordon        Toyota      160
23.  Paul Menard         Ford        160
24.  Brad Keselowski     Chevrolet   160
25.  Martin Truex Jr     Chevrolet   160
26.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   160
27.  John Andretti       Chevrolet   160
28.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   160
29.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   159
30.  Tony Raines         Dodge       158
31.  Scott Speed         Toyota      152
32.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       152
33.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       146
34.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   144
35.  David Stremme       Dodge       129
36.  David Reutimann     Toyota      127
37.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      124
38.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet    79
39.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet    76
40.  David Gilliland     Chevrolet    76
41.  Joe Nemechek        Toyota       25
42.  Patrick Carpentier  Toyota       18
43.  Dave Blaney         Toyota       2

Sprint Cup standings

Mark Martin’s early accident means he drops out of the Chase, falling two spots to 13th, although there was some consolation that he managed to rejoin the race late on after the car was repaired to enable him to pick up six extra positions. Ironically his place in the top twelve is taken by Kasey Kahne, despite Kahne’s eventful race and the fact that he slid across the finish line in a total wrecked car underneath the 18 of Kyle Busch.

“To get a 15th-place finish and gain in the driver point standings is pretty cool,” Kahne said after leaving the infield care center. “It could have been a lot worse” – especially after Kahne was also one of the cars involved in the big accident on lap 77.

Juan Montoya also gained a spot in the standings despite a turbulent day. But otherwise, the drivers in the all-important top twelve remained remarkably static despite the on-track drama.

Pos Driver              Points
1   Tony Stewart        2719
2   Jeff Gordon         2539
3   Jimmie Johnson      2525
4   Kurt Busch          2414
5   Carl Edwards        2317
6   Denny Hamlin        2302
7   Ryan Newman         2235
8   Kyle Busch          2234
9   Greg Biffle         2215
10  Matt Kenseth        2201
11  Juan Pablo Montoya  2187
12  Kasey Kahne         2166
+==== SPRINT CUP CHASE =====
13  Mark Martin         2101
14  David Reutimann     2092
15  Jeff Burton         2061
16  Clint Bowyer        2031
17  Brian Vickers       1998
18  Marcos Ambrose      1948
19  Jamie McMurray      1863
20  Joey Logano         1847
21  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1810
22  Casey Mears         1808
23  Elliott Sadler      1794
24  Martin Truex Jr.    1730
25  Sam Hornish Jr.     1705
26  Kevin Harvick       1683
27  Bobby Labonte       1679
28  Reed Sorenson       1668
29  A.J. Allmendinger   1646
30  David Ragan         1620
31  Paul Menard         1504
32  David Stremme       1499
33  Michael Waltrip     1481
34  Robby Gordon        1468
35  Scott Speed         1218
36  John Andretti       1201
37  David Gilliland     1027
38  Regan Smith          943
39  Brad Keselowski      720
40  Joe Nemechek         678
Pos Constructor Points
1   Chevrolet   138
2   Toyota      100
3   Ford         84
4   Dodge        74

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