[ via NASCAR Wire Service – by Reid Spencer ]
Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tony Stewart had an answer for the dominant pair of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.
In winning Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Stewart side-drafted and separated Kenseth and Biffle, who had surged into the lead during a two-lap run to the finish, then pulled away for his fourth win in the last eight July races at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
As Stewart approached the checkered flag for his third win of the season and the 47th of his career, a massive wreck in Turn 4 skewed the finishing order behind him. Stewart’s 47th victory broke a tie with Hall of Famer Buck Baker for 14th all-time.
All told, Stewart has won 18 races at Daytona, but, much as it did with Dale Earnhardt Sr., the big prize continues to elude him.
“I don’t know, but I’ll trade ‘em all in for just one Daytona 500,” Stewart said of his four July victories. “This is 18 wins at Daytona — we just haven’t got the right one yet. But all of ‘em are special, and it’s cool to do this.”
Jeff Burton came home second and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leader Kenseth third (after leading a race-high 89 laps), with Joey Logano and Ryan Newman completing the top five.
Biffle, involved in the last-lap crash after he and Kenseth separated, finished 21st despite having led 37 laps.
Denny Hamlin, suffering from a sore back that kept him out of practice for the event, made an ill-fated move exiting the tri-oval on Lap 153 of 160, triggering a multicar wreck that thinned the field for the final restart. All three Joe Gibbs Racing cars — those of Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano — were involved, as were the Michael Waltrip Racing entries of Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.
Kenseth led the field to the restart with Stewart to his outside and Biffle behind him. But Stewart got a push from Kasey Kahne and surged into the lead, only to have the Biffle-Kenseth pairing roar back past him.
But with an artful side-draft, Stewart unhooked the teammates, and pulled ahead while Kenseth waited for Biffle.
“I don’t know — it seems like we made the wrong moves at Talladega (in May) by not keeping Greg with me and getting separated,” said Kenseth, the 2012 Daytona 500 winner. “Today, I think I shouldn’t have worried about it, once we got separated off of (Turn) 2, and I was under Tony.
“I think I should have just stayed with him and drag-raced him to the finish.”
A caution on Lap 124 for a seven-car wreck that destroyed the Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson interrupted the dominance of Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle, who both had committed to pit road before the caution flag flew.
Pit road closed with the yellow, however, and Kenseth continued without stopping. Biffle, on the other hand, drew a penalty for stopping while pit road was closed and was sent to the rear of the field for a restart on Lap 131.
One of the last drivers to pit after pit road opened, Kenseth also restarted deep in the field, but before long, he and Biffle hooked up and began rolling to the front in the outside lane. When Brad Keselowski’s spin in Turn 2 caused the fourth caution on Lap 144, Kenseth and Biffle were running seventh and eighth, respectively.
The first caution didn’t come until Lap 81 — one lap past halfway — when Sam Hornish Jr., driving the No. 22 Dodge in place of suspended AJ Allmendinger, blew a tire and wrecked on the backstretch. Hornish was a last-minute substitute for Allmendinger, whose failed drug test from last weekend at Kentucky was announced Saturday afternoon, along with his suspension from NASCAR competition.
The caution was a huge break for Stewart and Keselowski, who had fallen a half-lap down during the first cycle of green-flag pit stops. Stewart made excellent use of the reprieve and soon worked his way to the front of the field.
Keselowski’s good fortune was short-lived. During pit stops under caution for Hornish’s crash, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon went three-wide and tangled on the way to the exit from pit road. Newman’s Chevrolet turned across the nose of Kahne’s Chevy, and slid into the back of Keselowski’s Dodge, which was parked in its pit stall.
Alert and nimble, Keselowski’s crew and a NASCAR official scattered and escaped injury. And with full credit to the pit crews, all four cars effected repairs and remained on the lead lap. Ultimately, all four survived to finish in the top 12.
Note: Kenseth’s lead in the standings grew to 25 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was collected in the last-lap crash and finished 15. Biffle is third, 44 points behind Kenseth.