Tony Stewart Wins Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tony Stewart claimed his third victory of the season and his fourth career Sprint Cup win in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, bringing his total at the track to 18 wins, second all-time behind only Dale Earnhardt. The reigning 2011 Sprint Cup Champion qualified on the outside pole, but started in the rear of the field because his qualifying time was disallowed when post-race inspection revealed an infraction involving an open air hose. Stewart avoided being caught up in any of the on-track or pit road incidents that ruined the night for so many teams. 

"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." Stewart explained. "We were ahead of them both times."

The drama began well before driver introductions. Just hours before race time, NASCAR notified Penske Racing that AJ Allmendinger failed a drug screen administered earlier in the week and had been temporarily suspended. Sam Hornish Jr., who was in the SPEED studios in Charlotte, got the call to drive the No. 22 Pennzoil Dodge. Hornish flew in just in time to climb in the car and started in the rear along with Stewart. On Lap 81 Hornish blew a tire and spun, bringing out the first caution. Despite sheet metal damage he was able to get back on track and ended the night in 33rd. 

Polesitter and points leader Matt Kenseth led the first 41 laps and a total of 89 laps throughout the race, but finished in third. "We had one of the fastest cars and didn't get caught up in the wreck and still had a good finish." said Kenseth. "It's hard to be disappointed with that, but the racer in you, when you have a car like that, you certainly want to figure out how to try to win with it."

Temperature issues plagued everyone and frustrated drivers complained that they couldn't race, they couldn't get close to the car in front or they'd overheat.

The first half of the race ran under the green flag but on Lap 91, Kurt Busch tried to put his car in a space that closed up almost as soon as it opened and five other cars paid the price for his impatience.

Kenseth's drafting partner and teammate Greg Biffle fell victim to the first "Big One" because the No. 17 and No. 16 headed to pit road as a wreck broke out around them. Kenseth drove through without stopping, thinking that pit road was closed, while Biffle stopped, thinking it was open. Biffle was wrong and had to restart at the tail of the field.

On Lap 124, Martin Truex Jr. didn't see Jimmie Johnson's hand signaling his intent to pit and the No. 56 plowed into the back of the No. 48, sending the Lowe's car into the inside wall. The ensuing melee included  Johnson, Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott, and Regan Smith. To make matters worse, while leaving pit road Jeff Gordon unintentionally pinched Ryan Newman down, sending him into Kasey Kahne, which caused Newman to spin into Brad Keselowski's No. 2 while it was being serviced. Gordon's radio chatter revealed he'd been about to ask if he was clear outside when Newman pulled out; by that time it was too late. 

When green-flag racing resumed, tensions ran high and by Lap 153, another crash sent cars spinning through the tri-oval. That melee involved 14 cars. The restart on Lap 158 didn't qualify for a green-white-checkered finish and the remaining cars on the track scrambled for the finish line. In doing so, they set off another "Big One." This time 15 cars incurred damage and the race officially ended under caution. 

Jeff Burton managed to bullet past the fray to finish in second place, scoring only his second top-five finish of the season. "You know, Kevin was pushing me, and we had caught, we had gotten to the back of the 16 car, and we just were going faster than we needed to be going.," said Burton. "I had to check up and when I did, it kind of moved me up the track a little bit, then Kevin because he was pushing me, now he was pushing me more on my left rear quarter panel and it just pushed me up the track.  We just got lucky nobody was there." 

TNT broadcast the 2 hours 32 minutes of racing in "Wide Open" coverage, with ads running side-by-side the racing action except during local  breaks. There were a total of six cautions for 23 laps and 12 lead changes among 9 drivers. 

The points leaders include: (1) Kenseth 676; (2)  Earnhardt Jr. 651; (3)  Biffle 632; (4) Johnson 618; (5)  Stewart 592; (6) Harvick 586;(7) Hamlin 584;(8) Truex Jr. 584; (9) Keselowski 573; (10) Bowyer 572;(11) Edwards 541; (12) Kyle Busch 516.

The complete finishing order:

1 Tony Stewart
2 Jeff Burton
3 Matt Kenseth
4 Joey Logano
5 Ryan Newman
6 Brad Keselowski
7 Carl Edwards
8 Michael Waltrip
9 Bobby Labonte
10 David Reutimann
11 Kasey Kahne
12 Jeff Gordon
13 Paul Menard
14 Jamie McMurray
15 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
16 Travis Kvapil
17 Martin Truex Jr.
18 Aric Almirola
19 Terry Labonte
20 Casey Mears
21 Greg Biffle
22 Dave Blaney
23 Kevin Harvick
24 Kyle Busch
25 Denny Hamlin
26 David Ragan
27 Trevor Bayne
28 Juan Montoya
29 Clint Bowyer
30 Marcos Ambrose
31 David Gilliland
32 Landon Cassill
33 Sam Hornish Jr.
34 Regan Smith
35 Kurt Busch
36 Jimmie Johnson
37 Bill Elliott
38 Josh Wise *
39 David Stremme
40 J.J. Yeley
41 Joe Nemechek
42 Stephen Leicht *
43 Mike Bliss
* Denotes Rookie

Tony Stewart Wins Coke Zero 400 at Daytona Tony Stewart Wins Coke Zero 400 at Daytona Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Sunday, July 08, 2012 Rating: 5