It only took three races for Tony Stewart to put a Chevrolet back in Victory Lane.
After posting runner-up finishes in both the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duels, Stewart’s first ride with Hendrick Motorsports landed Smoke back in the Winner’s Circle, collecting the eighth Nationwide Series victory of his career and his fourth in the last five years at Daytona.
Unlike last year, though, which saw Stewart’s No. 20 Toyota all but untouchable, this one was far from a sure-fire thing. Though Stewart was a mainstay in the top 10 all day, it was not until late in the running that he got his No. 80 up front. Once he did, Stewart spent the laps leading to the white flag keeping the single-file pack behind him — while waiting for then runner-up Kyle Busch to make his move. Busch, who ran nose to tail with Stewart for the last few laps of the race, bump-drafted the No. 80 from the entrance to the exit of turn 3, pushing him up the track. It wasn’t enough, though, as Stewart stayed in the gas on the high side and managed to hold off Carl Edwards and a hard-charging Clint Bowyer by less than a tenth of a second. Busch finished fourth.
Said Stewart of the last-lap action, “Kyle got me really loose. If I’d spun or crashed, I would have to have it out with him on that one.”
Stewart’s car, the No. 80 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, was a special promotion of the 80 dealers in the Hendrick auto group — and is now heading directly for the HMS museum after going one-for-one in Nationwide competition.
Who Should Have Won: Brad Keselowski. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the field, but the best JR Motorsports entry (and the best car of the day, for that matter) belonged to his protégé. The Keselowski that took to Daytona Saturday was night and day different from the green, timid plate racer that was behind the wheel of the No. 88 in 2008, aggressively working the high line and making numerous three-wide moves through the tri-oval. Keselowski’s car was among the best handling in the lead pack all day long, but contact with the wall coming out of turn 2 late in the event flattened the right-front tire and relegated the title hopeful to a disappointing 22nd-place finish.
Jason Keller’s season opening race with the Baker/Curb team was a far cry from the team’s flat performances throughout 2008. Using tire strategy to make up track position late in the event, Keller’s veteran experience shined through, as he kept his car in the lead draft all the way to the end. Despite being on older tires after the race’s final restart, Keller was visibly slicing and dicing with the leaders over the final few laps, and a ninth-place finish was the result. Just like at his former home, CJM Racing, Keller’s talent and experience is clearly rubbing off on the No. 27 team.
Mike Bliss and his No. 1 team had the horses today to contend for a long overdue first win, and they were in contention to do just that — until disaster struck. While running in the top 10 coming through the tri-oval, Bliss seemed to blank on warnings from his spotter that David Ragan was running below him along the yellow line. Bliss ended up coming down on Ragan’s nose, which sent him spinning across the infield and into Michael Waltrip. The resulting damage left Bliss in the back for the rest of the race. He finished 28th.
Jason Leffler made a real mess of several teams’ races today. Be it retaliation against Steve Wallace (for no justifiable reason) or a plain old mistake, Leffler clipped the back of Wallace’s No. 66 entering turn 3, spinning Wallace into oncoming traffic. The resulting wreck collected Wallace, Scott Lagasse Jr. and Justin Allgaier, all of whom finished the day outside the top 35. As a result of the incident, Leffler got a five-lap penalty for aggressive driving which took him out of contention, as well.
Underdog of the Race: The Wallace Brothers. Kenny Wallace continues to make something out of nothing with his Jay Robinson Racing team. With Herman behind the wheel, the minimally-sponsored Border Patrol car ran in the top 20 for the majority of the race, and posted a 16th-place finish even though the rate of attrition was very low for Daytona. Joining his brother in the top 20 was none other than plate-ace Mike Wallace. Mike, who narrowly missed qualifying for the Daytona 500, also made the best of his ride, racing JD Motorsports’ No. 01 into the event, keeping it on the lead lap, and finishing 19th. His run bested JDM teammate Danny O’Quinn, who is contesting the full 2009 Nationwide schedule, and was the first top 20 for the No. 01 team since Talladega last April.
The Final Word
In looking at the field that took to Daytona on Saturday, there was a mix of both good and bad in the starting lineup. To see the Nationwide Series, in spite of all the economic turmoil surrounding stock car racing, kick off its 2009 season with a full field and an exciting race was a true pleasure. And while it was aggravating as always to see Cup regulars dominate a minor league race — taking the top eight and 12 of the top 15 spots in the finishing order — it was also very encouraging to see all 43 cars that qualified for the race attempt to run the distance. That’s right; not a single start and park team was anywhere to be seen on Saturday. It’s doubtful that will carry over to Fontana, but it was still nice to see.
Unfortunately, Saturday was the second race this Speedweeks to fall victim to over-officiating. After seeing the truck race feature two obscene yellow-line penalties called on drivers that were forced below it, NASCAR topped themselves Saturday by penalizing Leffler five laps for rough driving after making contact with Steve Wallace.
Did Leffler turn, nay, wreck Wallace? Yes, and the tapes confirmed that. Where the tapes were ambiguous was whether or not Leffler did so in retaliation for Wallace racing him close or, as Wallace hypothesized, because the little guy couldn’t see over the steering wheel. NASCAR had no way of being sure, and in such a situation a five-lap penalty is not something the officials should be handing down. Intentional or not, Leffler’s actions were no less malicious than David Reutimann’s bulldozing of Ryan Newman in the Gatorade Duel, a move that went unpenalized. Hello, consistency?
There is no way for NASCAR to consistently determine whether an incident is intentional and whether or not to penalize a driver. This is why the drivers should be left to police themselves. Instead of handing down arbitrary penalties, put the bulls eye on Leffler. If it truly wasn’t intentional, it should be up to Leffler to make that clear to Wallace. And if he can’t… it should be up to Wallace whether or not to spin Leffler in turn 3 at Fontana.
See you there.