DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Back to the drawing board NASCAR.
Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 was a disappointment. Following Friday night’s scintillating Nationwide Series 250-miler that had a far less than capacity crowd on its feet, the 400 lulled a closer to capacity crowd into complacency.
If it wasn’t for Tony Stewart scoring a popular, final-lap victory, this dreadful exercise in single-file driving in circles would rank with the all-time duds at usually exciting Daytona.
After all there were but two significant leaders by the halfway point at lap 80. Roush Fenway’s Matt Kenseth, who won the Daytona 500 in February, led the first 40 laps and his teammate Greg Biffle led 33. The monotony was only broken by the drama of putting gas into cars, changing tires and last-minute substitute Sam Hornish Jr. hitting the wall after cutting a tire on lap 81.
More on Hornish in a bit.
The brief interlude did little to improve the second half as the circle dance with Kenseth and Biffle leading and the others following in their footsteps droned on. In fact, Kenseth led 78 of the first 120 laps.
But he and Biffle were shuffled back and separated after a lap 123 wreck that they avoided by dashing down pit road. However they refused to be stymied by what allowed them to earlier dominate: the inability to pass.
They got to the front with eight laps to go before the race’s big wreck sent 14 cars spinning into the first turn and the race into its final two laps. That’s where Stewart prevailed thanks to a big push from Kasey Kahne and his subsequent surge down the backstretch.
Kenseth led 89 of 160 laps but finished third.
“I’m happy to get third but yet on the other hand I’m incredibly disappointed because I feel my team kind of deserved to be down there holding the hardware and I kind of let them down,” Kenseth said.
That’s perfectly understandable.
Stewart led 22 laps for his fourth victory in the last eight Coke Zero 400s and his 18th at Daytona overall. This one was a little sweeter since he started in the rear after his car failed post-qualifying inspection.
The victory also was Stewart’s third of 2012 tying him with Brad Keselowski for the season lead.
“We’ve had really good luck at Daytona obviously,” Stewart said “It’s being in the right place at the right time. We got pretty fortunate to not have any of those close calls.”
The biggest drama for Stewart, aside from the victory, was his early race struggle to avoid going a lap down after losing the draft.
As for Hornish he was called at a TV studio in North Carolina at 6 p.m. after NASCAR announced that the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge’s regular driver, A.J. Allmendinger, was suspended for failing his random drug test a week ago at Kentucky.
Hornish was hustled to a plane and arrived at adjacent Daytona International Airport at 7:20 p.m. and at his car on pit road at 7:31. That was the only drama of the early evening until Kahne plowed his No. 5 Chevy into Ryan Newman’s No. 39 Chevy on pit road. Newman’s car then hit Keselowski’s No. 22 Penske Dodge.
Some nights are diamonds and some nights are rocks.
So despite the race ending – as usual at Daytona with a wreck as the field came to the checkered flag, this one involving 18 cars – what’s NASCAR to do?
Not much really as far as Daytona is concerned since Saturday night was the swan song for the current iteration of the Sprint Cup cars on the big track.
NASCAR will introduce new manufacturer-influenced body styles for Chevy, Dodge, Ford and Toyota for the 2013 season and hopefully they will allow their drivers to both go fast and pass.
Time will tell but they’ll have to go a long way to go out with the whimper the current car did on Saturday night.