Tony Stewart made the season opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race his own as he ran, or more realistically was pushed, to his fourth consecutive win and sixth in seven years at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday.
A cut tyre had put him back to the rear of the lead lap field with just six laps left to run but with his crew reminding him that he had run from fourteenth to third in just two laps earlier in the race Stewart knew he needed to find a good drafting partner. His salvation came in the form of Landon Cassill in the #1 Phoenix Construction Chevrolet who pushed Stewart through the field to snatch the lead from KHI teammate Clint Bowyer by just 0.007 seconds. That was second time in 48 hours that Bowyer saw a teammate snatch a win from him by the finest or margins – in Thursday’s Duel 2 Bowyer’s Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton snatched victory by just 0.005 seconds.
Bowyer was philosophical about being beaten twice and must have realised he contributed to Stewart’s win when he moved up the track to try to block the #4 car and in the process broke his own draft with Dale Earnhardt Jr. giving the latter an opening to try and snatch victory for himself. Bowyer had to cut back to head off his draft buddy and in that manoeuvre the draft was lost and Stewart, with Cassill hard on his tail had the momentum to edge ahead right on the line.
Clint Bowyer had earlier in the race tagged on to the rear of Danica Patrick‘s GoDaddy Chevrolet and pushed her through the field to lead lap 30, her first ever time leading the field in NASCAR under a green flag and making her the first woman to lead a lap at Daytona in a NASCAR race. Immediately after Bowyer pulled over to give his car a chance to cool down and Patrick failed to make the switch successfully which led a seasoned NASCAR journalist to write just hours later that her inexperience is letting her down.
Perhaps it is worth pointing out this was just the fourteenth NASCAR race for Patrick and by the end of her proposed schedule in 2011 she still will not have completed a full season’s worth of stock car racing. Neverthless she finished in fourteenth place, achieving one of her targets of a top fifteen place and her fourth place qualifying position was very impressive, especially when looking at the names of drivers who were further down the starting order.
Drafting remains something of a black art for many of the drivers and they can be seen to be learning as each race, as each lap really, passes. On the last lap between turns one and two Kyle Busch who was pushing teammate Joey Logano along noticed the Stewart-Cassill steamroller charging up towards him. He dropped down the track in an attempt to block the pair. Now pushing Logano with the bumpers just touching on one side sent Logano into a spin against the wall, something Busch was quick to acknowledge was his own fault.
Probably the most unlikely error of the whole race, though, was the simplest and the one that lets us believe that racing drivers really are just normal people with failings like ourselves. Early in the race Dale Earnardt Jr. was driving down pit lane looking for his pit stall but unfortunately was looking for the number 88 – his Sprint Cup number – and not the #5 he races with in the Nationwide Series thus missing his stop entirely.
Brad Keselowski‘s impressive run of 102 races without a DNF came to an unfortunate end when his drafting buddy Cassill knocked him into the infield after which the #22 Dodge shot back across the track and pinned Josh Wise‘s Ford to the wall before bouncing off the wall himself. The ensuing carnage needed a red flag race stoppage of just over five minutes to clear the wreckage.
Bump-drafting is a skill that all drivers are learning as they go along and much the same can be expected in Sunday’s Daytona 500. And whilst they are learning we are getting to watch some of the most exciting and intriguing motor racing currently on offer.