Although he started down in 42nd after a penalty, Tony Stewart was able to navigate the mayhem of Daytona and win for the third time this year, cementing his position in the Chase. Stewart, who at one point had completely lost the lead pack and was reliant on caution flags to get him back into contention, was pushed to the front in the closing stages by Kasey Kahne, and thereafter held his nerve to lead Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth across the line. Stewart's 47th career win was also his 18th at Daytona: a remarkable record surpassed only the late great Dale Earnhardt, who won 34 times at the Floridian Superspeedway.
“I’ll trade them all in for just one Daytona 500,” Stewart said. “This is 18 wins at Daytona – we just haven’t got the right one yet. But all of them are special, and it’s cool to do this.”
Stewart's win was all the more remarkable considering the dominance of the Roush-Fenway Racing duo of Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Despite a poor pit-stop which dropped Kenseth to 23rd and a penalty issued to Biffle after he had pitted while the pits were closed, the pair rapidly fought their way back to the front, and it appeared as though we were set for a carbon copy of the '500 – won by Kenseth – as the duo pulled away at the final restart. But neither could live with the pace of Stewart and Kahne on their outside, and Stewart was able to get the crucial overlap, enabling him to pull down in front of the Roush Fords.
As the cars behind stacked up, something had to give: trying not to hit Kenseth, Biffle wandered into the path of Kevin Harvick and bounced up the banking into Kahne and Carl Edwards. As Stewart, Burton and Kenseth charged for the line, the cars behind engaged in an impromptu game of dodge-ball. The fourth-place lottery went to Joey Logano, ahead of Stewart's team-mate Ryan Newman and the heavily damaged cars of Edwards and Kahne.
For a moment, it appeared as though Dale Earnhardt Jr. would escape the maelstrom unharmed, but as Biffle spun back to the bottom he made slight contact with the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, turning Junior hard right into the wall. Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola was also unable to miss the spinning Biffle, despite being fully on the apron.
“I was on the bottom and the 16 [Biffle] came across the race track. We probably would have ended up sixth or seventh because I was behind the 20 [Logano], so that stinks,” Almirola said. “I was just trying to be smart and not do anything stupid and got tore up there at the end.”
Also caught up in the mess were Terry Labonte, Jamie McMurray and David Reutimann, while BK Racing were denied their first ever top-10 when Travis Kvapil was hit from behind by Jeff Gordon.
Only his third top-10 of the year, Burton was elated with his surprise second place finish, made especially sweet after a brilliant recovery from being half-spun on the last lap by team-mate Harvick. As the final multi-car wreck ensued, Burton kept his foot planted and managed to outrun the wreck on the outside lane, resulting in his best finish of the season.
“We’ve had a miserable year, and to get out of Daytona with a second-place finish, we ought to be happy,” he said. “I’d like to say it was skill, but a lot of it was luck!”
Not content with third, Kenseth was understandably gutted to have missed out on a Daytona sweep, having led 89 laps – more than half the entire race distance.
“I'm really disappointed. We thought we had one of the best cars,” Kenseth said.
Through the wreckage, Brad Keselowski – whose car had been hit earlier on pit-road by a spinning Kahne – made it home eighth, while NASCAR veterans Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte, who described his car as a “tortoise,” were able to steal top-10 finishes. Two time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip, now a semi-regular competitor with only a few races scheduled this year, was criticised by commentators – namely SPEED's Jimmy Spencer – for his failure to qualify for the Daytona 500 (having crashed in the Gatorade Duels) and for finishing five laps off the pace last week in Kentucky: this despite the fact that both Brian Vickers and Mark Martin have scored top-5 finishes in the #55 this year. Although Waltrip's ninth place owed much to luck, he was content with his Daytona return.
“We just had a damaged car and probably pretty lucky to get a top-10,” Waltrip said. “Earlier in the going I was trying my best to get up to the lead and making moves that got us close, but I think in general across the board we weren't as strong as the front few cars. We got close, but that was all that we could do is get close.”
Kurt Busch, winner of Friday's Nationwide race, was the instigator of the first multiple car accident of the night when he pin-balled between Trevor Bayne and Aric Almirola, causing Bobby Labonte to spin in avoidance. Luckily, the damage count was fairly limited, especially when placed in light of what was to comeâ€¦
Jimmie Johnson only completed one lap in the Daytona 500 before he was eliminated in a multi-car accident, and his fortunes were little better this time around. Johnson received the lightest of touches from Martin Truex Jr. which was enough to unsettle the #48 and send the five-time champion hard into the SAFER barrier.
“We're just not having the best of luck on these plate tracks,” Johnson said. “I waved coming down the back straightaway and motioned I was coming to pit road. And as soon as I checked up and hit the brakes, someone got me from behind and around I went.”
A second accident took place behind as Truex slowed, leaving Joey Logano, Regan Smith, Bill Elliott and Michael Waltrip with nowhere to go. Jeff Gordon opportunistically attempted to pit before the caution came out, but as he slowed, he was collected by the cars wrecking behind him who were unable to stop.
“Coming to pit road, I don't know what happened behind me, but they just started wrecking, and we got caught up in that,” Gordon said. “That definitely changed our day. We were in great position, great car. At that point, it was trying to fix the damage and get track position, and with the damage, they did a great job with that.”
The next multi-car pileup occurred with less than 10 laps remaining, when Denny Hamlin got a big run on the leaders and ducked low to pass them on the inside. However, his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Kyle Busch was already there, sending Hamlin sideways and back across the track into the path of the oncoming traffic, clipping Busch again as he did so. Jamie McMurray did a brilliant job of avoiding Hamlin, but an unsighted Trevor Bayne ploughed straight into the side of him, as cars stacked up behind. Marcos Ambrose made heavy contact with the wall, while Truex, Gordon, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, David Gilliland, Juan Pablo Montoya, Casey Mears, and Tommy Baldwin Racing team-mates Dave Blaney and David Reutimann inadvertently joined in. Many cars survived, but Montoya – who famously hit a jet dryer in the '500 – as well as Hamlin, Bayne, Ambrose, Gilliland and Bowyer sustained terminal damage.
“I'm alright. None of the hits were too bad except for the last one in the right-side door,” said Hamlin, who suffered with back spasms all weekend. “It was one of those weekends where it's tough to go into the race with not much practice, but we put ourselves in position to win and just got collected there at the end.”
Meanwhile, it was an eventful day to say the least for Sam Hornish Jr. Penske's regular driver in the Nationwide Series was doing TV work in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he was informed that the team's Cup driver AJ Allmendinger had failed a random drugs test and was temporarily suspended from NASCAR competition. At short notice, Hornish was flown to the circuit, where he landed with half an hour to spare. However, he was not to be rewarded for his efforts, a punctured tyre ruining his race and leaving the #22 Dodge down in 33rd at the finish.
“We had a good car,” the Texan said. “We were just trying to be smart and bide our time, and we ended up cutting down a tire, and that basically ended our race. That’s unfortunate because I feel like these restrictor-plate races give you opportunities to go out there and make something happen at the end. We just barely made it past halfway when the tire let go on us and ripped the quarter off.
“All in all, I couldn’t have asked for much more in that short of a time period,” he continued. “But I knew I was going to be off a little bit because I wasn’t able to take all the steps you would normally take to be in one of these hot races.”
Penske issued a statement which confirmed that as the investigations against Allmendinger continue, Hornish will remain in the car at New Hampshire next week.
“I don’t know if I should say I’m happy to be here or not,” Hornish said. “It’s definitely not the kind of race I wanted to have. I got to do a lot of things I’ve never gotten to do before – put a race suit on in an airplane, get an escort in to the track. … But all in all, thankful for the opportunity to come down here and run.”