DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was no fire or rain. Still, another frantic finish at Daytona International Speedway.
Tony Stewart emerged the winner in the Coke Zero 400, charging past Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth on the last lap and holding on as the challengers stacked up behind him Saturday night in one of Daytona’s trademark wrecks.
“I don’t even remember what happened that last lap,” Stewart said.
Stewart has 18 victories at Daytona, second only to the late Dale Earnhardt’s 34 wins.
None of Stewart’s wins are in the Daytona 500, though. Stewart is 0 for 14 in NASCAR’s biggest race of the year and was a non-factor in February, when the race was delayed a day by rain and then stopped more than two hours for a massive jet dryer fire.
“I wish I could trade a couple of these races in for just one Sunday race in February,” he said of the Daytona 500.
But he’s always strong in the summer race at Daytona, and this visit was no different.
Stewart qualified second but dropped back to 42nd at the start of the race because his time was thrown out by NASCAR after his Chevrolet failed inspection. He quietly rode around — which is his style at restrictor-plate races — and let Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Greg Biffle control the front.
“We were going to try to win the thing and be there at the end,” Biffle said. “We were right there.”
The Roush drivers thought they had the field covered — Kenseth led a race-high 89 laps and Biffle led 35 — and they probably still liked their chances on the final green-white-checkered restart. Kenseth was the leader with Biffle on his bumper, as second-place Stewart was lined up with Kasey Kahne.
Kenseth and Biffle pulled away for a lap, but Stewart came quick on the outside, moved to the front, then crossed down the track in front of Kenseth for the lead. Seconds later, Biffle seemed to wiggle in traffic and cars began wrecking all over the track in what was tallied to be a 15-car accident.
“I’m not really sure what happened, they just started wrecking behind us,” said Kenseth, who started from the pole in his bid to become the first driver since 1982 to sweep the two Daytona races in the same season.
“It seems like we always end these things in green-white-checkers, and whenever you do, really anybody that’s in the front few tandems has a shot to win the thing. It’s so unpredictable. You do things those last two laps that you’d never do the rest of the race. It’s really hard to figure. You sit out there and ride around and be leading the whole race and come down to one of the green-white-checkers and have no idea where you’re going to finish.”
The final results showed Jeff Burton came from nowhere to finish second in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, followed by Kenseth in a Ford and Joey Logano in a Toyota.
Stewart teammate Ryan Newman, who was involved in a pit road incident with Kahne and Jeff Gordon, finished fifth. Roush driver Carl Edwards was sixth and was followed by Kahne, Brad Keselowski in a Dodge and Michael Waltrip. Bobby Labonte rounded out the top 10.
Denny Hamlin, who battled a bad back all weekend, raced for the win late but was involved in an accident that dropped him to 25th.
“I could have done without it, that’s for sure,” said Hamlin, who added none of the on-track contact was too rough. “I’ll be 100 percent by next weekend, for sure.”
Biffle, who was in third on the final restart, dropped all the way to 21st and said the accident started when Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave Kevin Harvick a big push, and Biffle turned in front of Harvick.
“He got a hell of a shove off the front of Junior … I’m like, ‘It’s impossible that somebody could get into that hole that quick,'” Biffle said. “But he got squirted off the bumper of (Earnhardt) and shot in there. It was my fault.”
Roughly 90 minutes before the race, NASCAR announced AJ Allmendinger had been suspended for failing a random drug test taken last week at Kentucky. Penske Racing rushed Sam Hornish Jr. in from North Carolina, where he was in the middle of a live television show, to drive Allmendinger’s car. Hornish arrived just minutes before it was time to climb in the car.
“All the way up until the plane took off we didn’t know if we were going to make the race in time,” Hornish said. “I said that I would tell the pilot to fly faster, but I’m pretty sure that he was going to have the throttle pinned the whole way down.”
Hornish said he grabbed a sandwich and tried to hydrate as much as I could. I think I drank 18 bottles of water knowing how hot it was down here.”
He was doing an admirable job until a tire problem caused him to spin, bringing out the first caution just past the halfway point. Hornish finished 33rd, and Penske officials said they’ll meet this week with Allmendinger to get a better understanding of the situation.
“We just cut down a tire and it came apart and tore the car all up,” Hornish said. “I’m disappointed for the guys.”
Stewart, meanwhile, picked up his third win of the season, which ties him for the most in the Sprint Cup Series with Keselowski. The defending series champion has won this race at Daytona four times in his career, all within the last eight years.
The victory made the three-time champion feel much better his chances to defend his title because Stewart feels he has enough wins to ensure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“It’s not a guarantee, but it’s nice to know we’ve got those three wins,” he said. “I would think (the Chase) would be a virtual lock that we have those wins. Hopefully, we won’t have to use them.”