NASCAR: Round 1 – Daytona International Speedway – 14 February

“The Great American Race” should be the showcase for the United States’ premier motor sport championship. Instead, it turned into an advertisement for emergency tarmac repairs, as the ageing Daytona circuit was finally pushed too far and developed a very stubborn hole that stopped racing not once but twice. Well, it’s an original way of starting the 2010 season, that’s for sure.

Would reigning champion Jimmie Johnson pick up his winning habit where he left off in 2009? In fact it was Johnson’s team mate (and chief rival last year) Mark Martin who took the honours of claiming the first lead lap of the season, fending off a determined bid from Kasey Kahne to keep the top spot through to the first caution on lap 7. That was when Brad Keslowski lost the read end of the 12, spun and collected Regan Smith and Sam Hornish Jr. in crunching impacts that inflicted heavy damage on all. Mike Bliss, Max Papis and Boris Said were also caught up in the ensuing fall-out, while Jeff Gordon had to take to the apron to sneak through with only a little front splitter damage.

That gave many cars the opportunity to have an early pit stop, and at the restart it was still Martin in the lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Harvick the only cars among the leaders not to come in. Bump drafting briefly popped Montoya into the lead at the restart, before Earnhardt Jr and Harvick combined to jump past him within a lap. Knocked out of both lanes of traffic and deprived of the raft, Martin was left stuck in the middle plummeting backwards before he could find a gap on the outside and get back up to speed: from the lead to outside the top twenty in just a couple of minutes.

Harvick led from lap 18 to lap 36 (with a one lap guest appearance at the front from Elliott Sadler) as the race settled into a comfortable period of green flag running. Kurt Busch took the top spot on lap 36, while A.J. Allmendinger was the man on the move as he jumped from 21st to 2nd in the space of 13 laps before finally taking the lead for himself on lap 45.

The lengthy green flag stint left the cars that had stayed out earlier – Mark Martin, Juan Montoya, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – needing to come in around lap 40, putting them a lap down, but in ten laps the rest of the field were also having to file in for green flag pit stops as well to reset the positions with Kurt Busch back in front and the field in general starting to look very strung out.

At lap 53 – just over quarter distance, and after all the pit stops had gone through – Busch led Allmendinger, Johnson, Kahne and Harvick, with Earnhardt Jr. and Montoya fitting in ahead of Kurt’s brother Kyle in 8th spot. Racing continued green through to lap 65, when Joe Nemechek and pitched into the wall in a solo accident that brought out the caution flags and allowed everyone the opportunity for slightly more considered pit stops – not that it helped Kyle Busch, who lost six spots when he slid through his pit box on the super-slick pit lane surface. In fact everyone was cmplaining about grip in general, with the weather conditions sunnier and warmer than they had been all week giving rise to handling problems throughout the field.

Allmendinger took the lead at the restart on lap 70, followed by Kurt Busch, Kahne, Harvick and the ever-present and dangerous Jimmie Johnson. A third yellow came out on lap 77 following a solo spin by Mike Bliss, and in the ensuring pit stops a problem lugnut on the 43 cost Allmendinger vital seconds, dropping him out of the top ten and leaving the lead to Kurt Busch at the restart.

Kurt wasn’t long for the lead, with Greg Biffle emerging as the stronger car on lap 82, holding the front spot till lap 95 when Kyle Busch became the 13th leader of the day. Kyle held that position for just 3 lap before Jeff Gordon and then Clint Bowyer streamed passed him. At lap 100 it was Bowyer in the lead, ahead of Kyle, but Kyle was clearly suffering from handling issues having opted to take only two tyres at the last pit stop and now having to pay for it, dropping out of the top ten.

With pit stops looming, a yellow was a welcome sight for all when John Andretti had a tyre go down, sending him into a heavy thud against the wall. But Jimmie Johnson would have been even more pleased than the rest, given that he had a cut tyre as well and had to urgently dive into the pits even before pit lane was officially open, for an extended stay to repair the bodywork damage that put him well to the back of the field.

The coincidence of two tyres getting cut at the same moment rang alarm bells – and an inspection revealed that part of the track had broken up at a key point in turns 1 and 2, raising a seam that was just waiting to slice into rubber. Clearly the track needed repair work – and the red flag was flown on lap 122 to allow the officials to being out the emergency repair gear. Resurfacing has been on the agenda here for a decade, and after this embarrassment it might actually happen: incredibly, Daytona was last resurfaced when Mario Andretti was F1 world champion. No wonder the bone-shaking bumps have become such a prominent feature here. The red flag lasted well over an hour and a half, repairs made more problematic than expected because of the heavy rain in the area over the last week, and leaving the Big Question: would the repairs hold?

That put the race into the time of the setting sun, meaning that the cars needed to return to the pits almost immediately for adjustments to night-time settings to cope. Clint Boweyer led the field away with 75 to run, ahead of David Ragan, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Elliott Sadler. Over the course of the next few laps, the lead kept swapping around between Bowyer, Kahne and Sadler before Kevin Harvick emerged as the front runner on lap 138, but not before Harvick bumped Sadler and sent him hurtling down the running order to 14th before he could get back into the draft.

A.J. Allmendinger was on a charge up to 6th place by lap 142, but then disaster struck as he got sucked around by the 24 of Jeff Gordon running alongside and sent into a sideways spin. Fortunately the other cars avoided him and he kept it off the wall but the car was firmly stuck in the grass. It was enough to bring out the fifth caution, and Elliott Sadler made best use of the pit stops by opting for two tyres only that put him back out in the lead (a climb of ten places after his earlier mishap) ahead of Martin Truex Jr., Harvick, Kahne, Gordon and Bowyer.

Sadler’s two-tyre gambit quickly backfired, the handling dreadful resulting in the 19 getting mugged for positions left and right so that it was swiftly shuffled out of the top twenty altogether. Kasey Kahne was also shuffled out of the top ten, and it was Martin Truex Jr. who emerged the beneficiary as he got a big push from Kevin Harvick to take the lead on lap 148 – becoming the 19th different driver to lead the Daytona 500 today, a race record statistic. Meanwhile Juan Montoya was also having a strong period, moving up to take second place ahead of Bowyer, Biffle, Truex and Denny Hamlin by lap 159.

That proved potentially critical when the track damage reared its head again and brought out the sixth caution which was rapidly converted to the second red. Would this be the end? The hole certainly seemed bigger than before, and rapidly worsening, so it would be a challenge to NASCAR to get it match ready. In the meantime the drivers milled around in the pit lane, and Kevin Harvick could but stand and wonder whether he’d already won, or if he still had it all to do.

It turned out that there was indeed still more to do: this time, racing was back on in less than an hour, but it was still night time now and the floodlight were on. Scott Speed gambled on the race being quickly red flagged again and was alone in staying out and not pitting, while behind him where the cars that took only two tyres: Biffle, Bowyer, Edwards, Gordon and Ragan.

Speed managed to stay at the front for an impressive 17 laps, but when the cautions failed to come out and the 82’s handling faded, he was swept to the back of the pack and 29th position, leaving Bowyer and Biffle battling for the lead. By now, everyone was looking ragged: the cooler night time conditions had changed the handling out of all recognition, and everyone was so closely packed together in two or three lanes that the turbulence was almost more than anyone could cope with, yet somehow they managed to keep it together and cope with the inevitable crashes and bangs that developed without sparking a full scale incident, with Harvick eye-catchingly insane as he danced his dar first one way then the other as he weaved through the tightly packed lanes on a mission to return to the front. Even Jimmie Johnson’s rear end suspension failure didn’t bring out the yellows, as the champ managed to limp back to the pits under his own steam to retire in the garage in a lowly 34th position.

The top five in line had managed to break away from the rest – Bowyer, Biffle, Kurt Busch, Truex Jr. and Harvick – when the inevitable 7th caution did finally come out. It was sparked when Elliott Sadler got loose and hit Ryan Newman, who spun and hit the outside wall nose on. Travis Kvapil was also caught up in the events but managed to keep it off the wall; and Sadler himself came off best of all.

When the race restarted there were only two laps to go, and green-chequered flag flags were waved. Greg Biffle got a big boost to take the front ahead of Bowyer and Harvick. But before they could reach the white flag to indicate one to go, Bill Elliott washed up the track at turn 3 and crunched Joey Logano against the wall, also leaving Boris Said behind them no where to go but into the back of the hapless Logano and make an eighth caution a foregone conclusion.

So the green-chequered flags means it was a reset: two to go all over again. This time Harvick boosted Truex to the front, but with the singular aim of then swooping down into the inside lane ahead of Biffle despite the best efforts of Truex to block him. Harvick took the lead, but the wild braking of everyone behind as a result of this started up a tremor that ran right down the field – and inevitably caused another wreck towards the back, with a collision between Kasey Kahne and Robert Richardson the ultimate cause of the 9th caution.

So … Let’s try that again. Again. Now the running order was Harvick, Jamie McMurray (who had suddenly surged up from 10th in that last burst), Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton: was Harvick truly the fastest man on track, and could he drive away from any further trouble without getting caught up in it again? No, he couldn’t: he got swamped at the restart and swiftly dispatched, leaving the battle for the win between the fouresome of McMurray, Biffle, Bowyer – and Dale Earnhardt Jr who suddenly arrived from no where, having been 21st as recently as lap 170 and not drawn much attention to himself since but clearly nailing the restarts and playing the drafting game to perfection to climb from 10th place in that last brief burst of racing. The crowd went berserk, thinking that Junior was actually going to pull it off.

As the four-way battle became a two-way duel between Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team mates McMurray and Earnhardt Jr past the white flag, smoke billowed out from further back from a crash between Robby Gordon and Jeff Gordon. No matter: now the white was out, the race was going to finish regardless. All McMurray had to do was hold off the 88 – and he did, to score a staggering from-nowhere victory in one of the biggest motor races in the world, two laps being the lowest number of laps led by the leader in Daytona’s history.

Small wonder he was in tears afterwards, overwhelmed by the moment after having been left without a team after 2009 until Ganassi took him in – what a way to start. And a small moment of history for Chip Ganassi as well in claiming another glittering prize in motor sport.

Race results

FIN  CAR DRIVER                MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1    1   Jamie McMurray        Chevrolet  190/5   208   Running
2    88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.    Chevrolet  175/5   208   Running
3    16  Greg Biffle           Ford       170/5   208   Running
4    33  Clint Bowyer          Chevrolet  165/5   208   Running
5    00  David Reutimann       Toyota     155/0   208   Running
6    56  Martin Truex Jr.      Toyota     155/5   208   Running
7    29  Kevin Harvick         Chevrolet  156/10  208   Running
8    17  Matt Kenseth          Ford       147/5   208   Running
9    99  Carl Edwards          Ford       138/0   208   Running
10   42  Juan Montoya          Chevrolet  139/5   208   Running
11   31  Jeff Burton           Chevrolet  130/0   208   Running
12   5   Mark Martin           Chevrolet  132/5   208   Running
13   98  Paul Menard           Ford       124/0   208   Running
14   18  Kyle Busch            Toyota     126/5   208   Running
15   83  Brian Vickers         Toyota     118/0   208   Running
16   6   David Ragan           Ford       120/5   208   Running
17   11  Denny Hamlin          Toyota     117/5   208   Running
18   151 Michael Waltrip       Toyota     109/0   208   Running
19   82  Scott Speed           Toyota     111/5   208   Running
20   20  Joey Logano           Toyota     108/5   208   Running
21   71  Bobby Labonte         Chevrolet  100/0   208   Running
22   14  Tony Stewart          Chevrolet  97/0    208   Running
23   2   Kurt Busch            Dodge      99/5    208   Running
24   19  Elliott Sadler        Ford       96/5    208   Running
25   26  Boris Said            Ford       93/5    208   Running
26   24  Jeff Gordon           Chevrolet  90/5    208   Running
27   21  Bill Elliott          Ford       82/0    208   Running
28   7   Robby Gordon          Toyota     84/5    208   Running
29   37  Travis Kvapil         Ford       81/5    205   Running
30   9   Kasey Kahne           Ford       78/5    202   Running
31   38  Robert Richardson Jr. Ford       70/0    202   Running
32   43  A.J. Allmendinger     Ford       72/5    198   Running
33   55  Michael McDowell      Toyota     64/0    195   In Pit
34   39  Ryan Newman           Chevrolet  61/0    193   Running
35   48  Jimmie Johnson        Chevrolet  58/0    185   In Pit
36   12  Brad Keselowski       Dodge      55/0    174   Running
37   77  Sam Hornish Jr.       Dodge      52/0    160   Running
38   34  John Andretti         Ford       49/0    117   In Pit
39   78  Regan Smith           Chevrolet  46/0    90    Running
40   13  Max Papis             Toyota     43/0    89    Out of Race
41   47  Marcos Ambrose        Toyota     40/0    79    Out of Race
42   36  Mike Bliss            Chevrolet  37/0    76    In Pit
43   87  Joe Nemechek          Toyota     34/0    64    Running

Sprint Cup standings

 	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	
RANK  +/-  DRIVER                POINTS  BEHIND  POLES WINS TOP 5  TOP 10
1     --   Jamie McMurray        190     Leader  0     1    1      1
2     --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.    175     -15     0     0    1      1
3     --   Greg Biffle           170     -20     0     0    1      1
4     --   Clint Bowyer          165     -25     0     0    1      1
5     --   Kevin Harvick         156     -34     0     0    0      1
6     --   David Reutimann       155     -35     0     0    1      1
7     --   Martin Truex Jr.      155     -35     0     0    0      1
8     --   Matt Kenseth          147     -43     0     0    0      1
9     --   Juan Montoya          139     -51     0     0    0      1
10    --   Carl Edwards          138     -52     0     0    0      1
11    --   Mark Martin           132     -58     1     0    0      0
12    --   Jeff Burton           130     -60     0     0    0      0
========== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ===========
13    --   Kyle Busch            126     -64     0     0    0      0
14    --   Paul Menard           124     -66     0     0    0      0
15    --   David Ragan           120     -70     0     0    0      0
16    --   Brian Vickers         118     -72     0     0    0      0
17    --   Denny Hamlin          117     -73     0     0    0      0
18    --   Scott Speed           111     -79     0     0    0      0
19    --   Michael Waltrip       109     -81     0     0    0      0
20    --   Joey Logano           108     -82     0     0    0      0
21    --   Bobby Labonte         100     -90     0     0    0      0
22    --   Kurt Busch            99      -91     0     0    0      0
23    --   Tony Stewart          97      -93     0     0    0      0
24    --   Elliott Sadler        96      -94     0     0    0      0
25    --   Boris Said            93      -97     0     0    0      0
26    --   Jeff Gordon           90      -100    0     0    0      0
27    --   Robby Gordon          84      -106    0     0    0      0
28    --   Bill Elliott          82      -108    0     0    0      0
29    --   Travis Kvapil         81      -109    0     0    0      0
30    --   Kasey Kahne           78      -112    0     0    0      0
31    --   A.J. Allmendinger     72      -118    0     0    0      0
32    --   Robert Richardson Jr. 70      -120    0     0    0      0
33    --   Michael McDowell      64      -126    0     0    0      0
34    --   Ryan Newman           61      -129    0     0    0      0
35    --   Jimmie Johnson        58      -132    0     0    0      0
36    --   Brad Keselowski       55      -135    0     0    0      0
37    --   Sam Hornish Jr.       52      -138    0     0    0      0
38    --   John Andretti         49      -141    0     0    0      0
39    --   Regan Smith           46      -144    0     0    0      0
40    --   Max Papis             43      -147    0     0    0      0
41    --   Marcos Ambrose        40      -150    0     0    0      0
42    --   Mike Bliss            37      -153    0     0    0      0
43    --   Joe Nemechek          34      -156    0     0    0      0

Postscript

And so for now, that’s the end of NASCAR race reports from me. A shame; although I have to say, with this whole hole business, maybe I’m freeing myself of a whole lot of exasperation for a season!

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