By Jeff Wolfe
In a race where there were no guarantees, Tony Stewart virtually guaranteed himself a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship Saturday night at Daytona.
Stewart won his third race of the season in the 400-mile, 160-lap event on the famed 2.5-mile oval. The defending Sprint Cup champion joined Brad Keselowski as the only three time winners this season and they are each inside the top 10 in points with seven races left in the Sprint Cup’s regular season.
But as is often the case, there was nothing regular about the final laps of a Daytona race, a restrictor plate track where the cars run in a large pack, which is also a prime recipe for multi-car accidents.
Stewart’s recipe for victory included getting a big push from Kasey Kahne on the outside lane on the final lap, which was enough to push him by race leader Matt Kenseth, who was getting help from Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle.
“I don’t even remember what happened on the last lap,” said Stewart, who won his fourth mid-summer Daytona race and 18th race there overall, but is still without a season-opening Daytona 500 victory. “I was in the second lane and tried to get the 17 (Kenseth) and 16 (Biffle) pulled apart. Once we got that done that gave us a run on the outside.
“This is a weird day. I’m still voting for this to be a Figure 8 race.”
It was quite the weird weekend for Stewart, who led 22 laps in his 47th career win in front of an estimated crowd of 115,000. He qualified second Friday, only to be demoted to the back of the field and start 38th because of an illegal cooling hose found in post-qualifying inspection. Then, early Saturday night, he was in three-car pack that included Keselowski about 20 seconds behind the leader due to a lengthy pit stop under the green flag. The first of six yellow flags for a total of 23 laps came on lap 81 and put Stewart back in contention.
The key pit stop for him though came after a Kurt Busch wreck caused the next caution on lap 91. Stewart was one of only a few cars to stop for fuel. That call by crew chief Steve Addington allowed Stewart to only need one can of fuel on the final stop, compared to most other teams needing two cans, which takes a couple of more seconds.
So, on the Stewart’s final stop on lap 127, he picked up six spots to win the race off pit road and put him in the lead.
And that put him ahead of the pack for the craziness that included two 14-car crashes in the in the final eight laps.
“We’ve had really good luck at Daytona, obviously, and I wish I could trade a couple of these races in for just one Sunday race in February,” Stewart said. “You know, it’s just being at the right place at the right time, and when those last two big wrecks happened we were in the right spot. We were ahead of them both times.”
And after the checkered flag flew, with Jeff Burton avoiding the melee to finish second, and Kenseth taking third, a big part of the track did resemble one of those figure 8 demolation derby tracks. Biffle got loose to start the last lap crash. The first Big One came with eight laps remaining and Stewart in the lead. It also came when Biffle got loose and came down into Denny Hamlin, who was running the low line.
“We were all jockeying for position,” Hamlin said. “I think the 16 came down and got into my right front fender. I was already loose anyway. I was just a ping pong ball after that point.”
Biffle, who led 35 laps, spent much of the night pushing Kenseth, who led a race-high 89 laps. And the tandem appeared to be the fastest duo when they could get together. They even moved from the back of the pack to the front after entering pit road on lap 125 immediately after it closed due to an accident. Biffle stopped and took fuel and service and Kenseth kept going and pitted with the rest of the field. A penalty put Biffle in the back and when Kenseth did stop for service, he too was in the back.
So, they were together again in first and third on the final restart. But a slight separation on the final lap, combined with Stewart’s big push from Kahne, allowed Stewart to take the lead.
“It’s just disappointing because I thought we had the best car,” Kenseth said. “It seems like we made the wrong moves. Today, once we got separated off two, I should have just tried to stay with them. But I tried to slow up and get help from my teammate who had been helping me the whole night.
“It’s just a different kind of racing. I thought we did good job to get back up front. And that last lap, it gets crazy. You don’t know what’s going on two or three rows behind you.”
Kahne, who drives a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, admitted he wanted to see theHendrick-powered Chevy of Stewart win, rather than one of the Roush Fenway Fords driven by Kenseth or Biffle.
“I was trying all I could because I would rather see Tony win than those two,” said Kahne, survived to finish seventh. “By the time I got to four, there were way too many cars for too small of a place.”
Burton may have made the best crash-saving moves of the night, both on the final lap. He saved his car once in the first turn after getting a bump from behind, then found his way through the final turn carnage staying high near the wall to emerge in second.
“I had to go somewhere,” he said of the final move. “We had to just kind of ride around in the back or we were going to overheat. That kept us out of some trouble. We got going with about 30 to go and missed a couple of wrecks. Anytime you leave here with your car not torn up it’s a good night.”
The rest of the top 10 after Kenseth was Joey Logano in fourth, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Kahne, Keselowski, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte.
“I’d rather be lucky than good,” Logano said. “We had one up and down night. Going into Turn 3 on the last lap, was just bumper cars. I got loose and then saved it.”
Part of the weirdness of the night included NASCAR announcing the suspension of driver A.J. Allmendinger Saturday afternoon for violating the sport’s substance abuse policy. That left Penske Racing scrambling for a driver and it summoned current Nationwide and former Sprint Cup driver Sam Hornish from North Carolina. He arrived at the track about 10 minutes before the race started.
“It was the first time I put a (driver’s) suit on in an airplane,” said Hornish, who finished 33rd. “I was pretty comfortable in the car. I was just trying to make it to the end. It was an up and down day for sure.”
The Sprint Cup series will head to Loudon, N.H., Sunday, with a 1 p.m. start on TNT.
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