NASCAR: Race 18 – Coke Zero 400, Daytona International – July 3

Where else could NASCAR head to for Independence Day weekend than Daytona? If there’s a Sprint Cup circuit more completely suitable for the most patriotic weekend of the year, and more likely to put on a suitably dramatic show for the fans, then we’re not seeing it.

Rain haunted the night time race, however, after qualifying had been rained off and the radar screens flashed warnings of rain clouds in the area that could bring a premature end to the racing. Hence, NASCAR went into “hurry up” mode to get he racing underway – and fortunately the rain stayed away and didn’t wreck the occasion.

Kevin Harvick was in charge at both the start and the end, but it was a wild ride at times in between those points. While Harvick led the field to the green flag from pole position, he was immediately usurped by Jimmie Johnson for four laps. Harvick took the lead back on lap 5 but then lost it to Jeff Gordon on lap 10, but then Harvick took it back again. Greg Biffle briefly assumed the lead on lap 14 before Kyle Busch then had his turn, just as a competition caution came out on lap 15 which gave Harvick the lead back after the pit stops.

The lead continued to change with slot machine rapidity – Elliot Sadler, then Kyle Busch, Sadler again, then Kurt Busch, Harvick briefly before Kurt overtook him and held on to the lead for a relatively stable eight laps until a duelling Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish vied for the top position over the course of the next dozen laps.

Juan Montoya had just found the front as the leaders started to pit when the second caution of the night came out for debris from JJ Yeley’s car. Jeff Gordon beat Montoya at the restart, but there were only a couple of laps of green flag running before the third yellow came out on lap 67 – AJ Allmendinger had got loose and connected with Kyle Busch before sliding down the track and into the wall.

The lead continued to be unstable, with Jeff Gordon taking the field to the restart but then getting beaten by an aggressive Brad Keselowski; Gordon got him back next time around but then succumbed to Juan Montoya, who in turn fell a couple of laps later to Denny Hamlin. Two laps on and it was Hornish back in front, holding off Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

Busch seemed unaffected by the earlier contact with Allmendinger and duly took charge of the race on lap 86, and holding on to the lead for the next 17 laps – quite an achievement here at Daytona. But that achievement came to a disastrous end when he came up to lap Juan Montoya, who had been in for a green flag pit stop: Montoya collided with Busch, and this time Kyle’s luck did not hold. He was into the wall and the car was mortally wounded. He would play no further role in the evening, and it’s a big dent in his Sprint Cup standing.

Mark Martin stayed out of the pits during the ensuing caution, but although he led at the restart the #5’s handling was off and he was quickly overtaken by Montoya, then Jeff Burton got past them both and found the front.

Three laps on and David Ragan got loose and hit the wall on lap 116, which also saw Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray sliding across the track and Matt Kenseth get a puncture that required a visit to pit road under the ensuing fifth caution of the evening. When the green flag came out again it was Tony Stewart who found himself leading the pack at the restart.

The lead then changed with almost every lap: Stewart tussled with Burton, then Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch all had a go before Burton came out top again as the sixth caution came out following David Stremme’s hit against the wall that saw him and Robert Richardson Jr. sliding through the grass as a result; Kurt Busch got the best pit stop and led the field at the restart, only too Harvick get a push from Clint Bowyer to take the lead straight away.

The seventh yellow came out almost immediately, as further back in the pack Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth slid through the track, and Greg Biffle also caught the wall in a separate incident. There was no need for anyone to pit, and the green came out again on lap 145.

The green flag period lasted long enough for Clint Bowyer to assume the lead, but on lap 148 Jeff Burton made contact with Kurt Busch while the two were battling near the front, and the ensuing chain-reaction mayhem was the dictionary definition of “the Big One” which 20 cars in various states of destruction that saw an immediate red flag come out.

The worst affected was Mark Martin, whose #5 limped down the pit lane but then got engulfed in flames; members of Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew rushed to help extract Martin. Not that Johnson’s team had much else to do – their driver had been one of the cars wrecked in the Big One, along with Tony Stewart, Juan Montoya, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman. Coming just after midnight, the crash provided – as TNT commentator quipped – “the official first fireworks of the Fourth of July.”

Once the track was cleaned up, Clint Bowyer stayed out and resumed in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, who was first out of the pits having opted to take on fresh tyres under yellow; Kurt Busch was at the back of the lead lap having come into the pits to get some dents in the bodywork sorted out.

But it was Jeff Gordon who was coming on strong, charging into the lead on lap 157, and then Bowyer got a push back into the lead just as the ninth yellow came out on lap 159 for Hornish hitting the wall hard in turn 4 after contact with Elliott Sadler, collecting the hapless Kurt Busch in the aftermath. With only six laps remaining, this meant that a green-and-chequered flag finish was now in operation.

Clint Bowyer led the restart, with Kevin Harvick alongside him at the double-file restart. Jeff Gordon gave Bowyer a push assist, while Harvick found himself under threat from Kasey Kahne, but Bowyer got shuffled back and eventually got loose, bounced into the wall and spun across the grass on the final lap, out of contention. Meanwhile Harvick had the raw pace to take the lead on the penultimate lap and hold off Kahne through to the finish line to claim his second win of the season and his 13th Cup Series victory in total.

“Same old Daytona,” said Harvick afterwards. “Cars moving around and bouncing around, […] a lot of passing and shuffling, and then there at the end we had the big wreck and we were fortunate to be in front of it.”

Harvick comes away from Daytona with the perfect score – pole, the victory, and points for most laps led helping cement his Sprint Cup lead, especially with so many of his closest challengers getting caught up in wrecks. He’ll be the driver with the biggest smile this holiday weekend!

Race result

Pos  Driver                Car        Laps
 1.  Kevin Harvick         Chevrolet  166
 2.  Kasey Kahne           Ford       166
 3.  Jeff Gordon           Chevrolet  166
 4.  Dale Earnhardt Jr     Chevrolet  166
 5.  Jeff Burton           Chevrolet  166
 6.  Carl Edwards          Ford       166
 7.  Kurt Busch            Dodge      166
 8.  Reed Sorenson         Toyota     166
 9.  Mike Bliss            Chevrolet  166
10.  Scott Speed           Toyota     166
11.  David Reutimann       Toyota     166
12.  Robby Gordon          Toyota     166
13.  Steve Park            Toyota     166
14.  Kevin Conway          Ford       166
15.  Matt Kenseth          Ford       166
16.  Bobby Labonte         Chevrolet  166
17.  Clint Bowyer          Chevrolet  166
18.  Paul Menard           Ford       165
19.  JJ Yeley              Dodge      164
20.  Greg Biffle           Ford       163
21.  Sam Hornish Jr        Dodge      159
22.  Elliott Sadler        Ford       159
23.  Robert Richardson Jr  Ford       159
24.  Denny Hamlin          Toyota     158
25.  Tony Stewart          Chevrolet  158
26.  Ryan Newman           Chevrolet  148
27.  Juan Pablo Montoya    Chevrolet  148
28.  Mark Martin           Chevrolet  148
29.  Joey Logano           Toyota     148
30.  Brad Keselowski       Dodge      147
31.  Jimmie Johnson        Chevrolet  147
32.  Marcos Ambrose        Toyota     147
33.  Regan Smith           Chevrolet  147
34.  Travis Kvapil         Ford       145
35.  Martin Truex Jr       Toyota     141
36.  AJ Allmendinger       Ford       136
37.  David Stremme         Ford       135
38.  David Ragan           Ford       116
39.  Jamie McMurray        Chevrolet  116
40.  Kyle Busch            Toyota     103
41.  Joe Nemechek          Toyota     38
42.  Max Papis             Toyota     6
43.  Dave Blaney           Toyota     4

Sprint Cup championship

POS +/-  DRIVER                 POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Kevin Harvick          2684    Leader  18  0  2  8   13
2   +3   Jeff Gordon            2472    -212    18  0  0  9   10
3   -1   Jimmie Johnson         2459    -225    18  0  5  8   11
4   +2   Kurt Busch             2439    -245    18  2  2  7   11
5   -1   Denny Hamlin           2400    -284    18  0  5  7   7
6   -3   Kyle Busch             2376    -308    18  2  2  5   9
7   --   Matt Kenseth           2322    -362    18  0  0  4   8
8   --   Jeff Burton            2319    -365    18  0  0  4   8
9   --   Tony Stewart           2251    -433    18  1  0  4   8
10  --   Greg Biffle            2234    -450    18  0  0  2   10
11  +2   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     2177    -507    18  1  0  2   6
12  --   Carl Edwards           2170    -514    18  0  0  1   7
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  -2   Mark Martin            2131    -553    18  1  0  5   6
14  +1   Clint Bowyer           2121    -563    18  0  0  1   9
15  -1   Ryan Newman            2090    -594    18  1  1  2   6
16  +4   Kasey Kahne            2016    -668    18  1  0  5   6
17  +2   David Reutimann        2000    -684    18  0  0  3   3
18  -2   Joey Logano            1997    -687    18  1  0  2   7
19  -2   Jamie McMurray         1945    -739    18  2  1  4   5
20  -2   Martin Truex Jr.       1930    -754    18  1  0  1   4
21  +1   Juan Montoya           1924    -760    18  1  0  4   8
22  -1   A.J. Allmendinger      1900    -784    18  1  0  0   3
23  --   Paul Menard            1847    -837    18  0  0  1   2
24  +2   Scott Speed            1765    -919    18  0  0  0   2
25  --   Brad Keselowski        1721    -963    18  0  0  0   0
26  -2   David Ragan            1709    -975    18  0  0  0   1
27  --   Marcos Ambrose         1660    -1024   18  0  0  0   2
28  --   Elliott Sadler         1650    -1034   18  0  0  0   0
29  --   Sam Hornish Jr.        1604    -1080   18  0  0  0   0
30  --   Regan Smith            1496    -1188   18  0  0  0   0
31  --   Bobby Labonte          1391    -1293   18  0  0  0   0
32  --   Robby Gordon           1334    -1350   16  0  0  1   1
33  +1   Travis Kvapil          1233    -1451   17  0  0  0   0
34  -1   David Gilliland        1193    -1491   15  0  0  0   0
35  +1   Kevin Conway*          1169    -1515   17  0  0  0   0
36  -1   Brian Vickers          1158    -1526   11  0  0  0   3
37  --   David Stremme          770     -1914   10  0  0  0   0
38  +2   Mike Bliss             759     -1925   10  0  0  0   2
39  -1   Joe Nemechek           729     -1955   17  0  0  0   0
40  -1   Max Papis              699     -1985   14  0  0  0   0
41  --   Dave Blaney            622     -2062   15  0  0  0   0
42  --   Casey Mears            556     -2128   7   0  0  0   0
43  +3   J.J. Yeley             491     -2193   8   0  0  0   0
44  -1   Michael McDowell       471     -2213   12  0  0  0   0
45  -1   Bill Elliott           448     -2236   5   0  0  0   0
46  -1   Boris Said             399     -2285   5   0  0  0   1
47  --   Reed Sorenson          353     -2331   5   0  0  0   1
48  +3   Robert Richardson Jr.  249     -2435   3   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Michael Waltrip        200     -2484   3   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Todd Bodine            169     -2515   4   0  0  0   0
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