It's been a huge month, leading up to the Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Daytona 500. This is the first year of the new Car of Tomorrow, the "Gen Six" car, and all of the drivers have been trying to figure out its intricacies. The Ford Fusion and Chevrolet NASCAR SS has joined the field and its street-legal equivalent, the SS, was introduced. A huge wreck in the Nationwide Series race the day before the Daytona 500 tore a car in half, tore a hole in the fence, sent car parts flying into the crowd and injured some 33 spectators.
And then, of course, making just her 11th Sprint Cup Series start, there was Danica Patrick on pole position. She'd lead the way for the 43 cars on the grid to start the 200 laps of the 2.5-mile oval called the Daytona International Speedway, with its five-story-high turns banked at 31 degrees and the 3,000-foot front stretch banked at 18 degrees.
Perhaps all that excitement is why James Franco, the honorary race starter there to promote Disney's new film, Oz the Great and Powerful, yelled "Drivers, and Danica, start your engines!" to begin the 65th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship...
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Patrick led Jeff Gordon in the number two slot next to her, with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer in a two-up group behind.
Patrick didn't keep the lead long, Gordon taking the number one position by the end of the first lap, Patrick slotted right behind him. The opening laps saw a fair bit of action as those further back tried to figure out where the other fast lines were. Daytona can handle cars four and five abreast, but everyone knew that the outside line was the fastest – and almost all of the race was led by those "rim-running" within a car length of the SAFER barrier. Cars that tried the inside line got the worst of it unless there were a few of them in a tight group – one driver said "If you don't get a big enough group to go down to the bottom with you, it's difficult to pass and you drop from the front of the field to the back."
When bunches did get together, the inside line could do the trick. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. started 19th, and by lap six he was up to 12th, Daytona rookie Dillon went from 8th to 5th, Clint Bowyer from 10th to 6th. Higher than that spot, though, things settled in quickly. On Lap 10 it was Gordon, Patrick, Kyle Busch, Kahne and Dillon, and it stayed single file through most of the pack.
Lap 26 saw the first caution to clear debris. About the most exciting thing so far was Gordon getting "either a hot dog wrapper or a piece of debris" stuck on his grille of his car complaining of his water pressure going ballistic. With no one to draft behind to remove it, there was nothing he could do until the caution; that's when he pulled up close behind the Chevrolet SS pace car and whatever it was flew off.
After some yellow-flag pit stops, the green flag appeared on Lap 30, the order being Gordon, Dillon, Kahne, Kyle Busch, Johnson, Biffle, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Patrick and Harvick. Showing how bad that inside line was, though, Dillon dropped down and went from second place to 21st in less than half a lap. Patrick managed to make it work for her, on the other hand, when she went from ninth to sixth with an inside move.
The second caution came on Lap 31, when a multi-car wreck took out some of the drivers in with a chance of winning. The incident sent Juan-Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Kahne and Casey Mears to the pits. After some repairs, Keselowski got back out in 23rd. Tony Stewart disappeared to his garage, grabbed a grinder and helped his crew repair his car. He finally got back out on Lap 115, 80 laps down and in 42nd place, just hunting for points. Tony Stewart has won 19 of the lead-up races to the Daytona 500 over the years, never the big race.
The wreck was announced as "Kasey Kahne just shot down across the nose of Montoya and everyone got on the brakes," and in the post-crash interviews, the affected drivers began their recount of the crash with some variation of "The No. 5 car (Kahne) got sideways...". Kahne said the guys in front of him, who were the leaders, slowed down in the turn and he got hit from behind when he had to get on the brakes. That led announcers discussing "Cars having to check up [slow down] in the middles of corners because they're just not handling" like the drivers want them to. Instability and extra turbulence around the Gen Six car has been a talking point during the run-up to the race.
When racing began again on Lap 36 and settled down on Lap 38, it was Kenseth, Bowyer, Johnson, Patrick and Biffle. The passing difficulty and learning the behavior of the cars led to "logging laps," with single-file running and not much passing. A quarter of the way through the race it was Kenseth, Johnson, Patrick, Gordon, Busch, Logano, Dillon, Truex Jr., Hamlin, Biffle in the top ten. There had been five leaders, Patrick (one lap), Gordon (31), Kenseth (12), Johnson (five), Bowyer (one).
The order stayed pretty much the same for the next 20 laps when the next pit stop window opened. During those pits, Kurt Busch's pit stop went all wrong when the left front tire wasn't attached before the car came off the jack, and four crewmen had to lift the car up so it could be put on the jack again. The damage to the left side of the car had him repeatedly in the pits.
Patrick and Gordon, who had started the race one and two, were never far from the front. A third debris caution came out on Lap 85, the pits opened a lap later and all of the leaders stopped for fuel. On Lap 89, things went green, and Patrick took her spot in the lead with another inside move on Michael Waltrip. To start Lap 90 it was Patrick, Bowyer, Hamlin, Waltrip, Kenseth, Truex Jr., Biffle, Gordon, Johnson, Logano.
She led for two laps, Denny Hamlin got around her on Lap 92, Kenseth got around Hamlin two laps later, and he'd go on to do 86 laps at the front of the race. There had been 15 lead changes for ten drivers to that point. The problem for Kenseth was that the man leading at the halfway point hasn't won the race since Davy Allison did it in 1992. On Lap 100, the race order was Kenseth, Hamlin, Patrick, Bowyer, Johnson, Waltrip, Burton, Truex, Jr., Biffle and Logano.
Twenty laps later, the order was exactly the same and the announcers repeated their expectation that "Go time" would have to happen soon.
Patrick took the lead one more time on Lap 126 for a brief spell when the two in front of her dove into the pits, but she took to the pits on Lap 129. After all the stops, the order on Lap 134 Kenseth, Hamlin, Bowyer, Busch, Martin, Truex Jr., Earnhardt Jr., Biffle, Patrick, Johnson.
Three laps later, another crash midway through Turn 2 claimed Josh Wise, Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, Carl Edwards, David Gilliland, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and that brought out a caution to clear up oil, water and other fluids that ran from Turn 1 all the way to the back straight. It took the cleanup crew nine laps to get it fixed, and when racing resumed it was Kenseth, Hamlin, Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Martin, Truex, Jr., Earnhardt, Jr., Biffle, Patrick and Johnson.
That put the two Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing in front, then the cars decided to retire. Kenseth, having led 86 laps, started smoking something awful, and his crew didn't even pretend it was going to be fixed when he got to the pits. On Lap 152, Kyle Busch came into the pits, same smoke, same shrugging crew. That made the order Hamlin, Truex, Jr., Biffle, Johnson, Gordon, Labonte, Marcos Ambrose, Bowyer, Patrick and Regan Smith.
With less than one quarter of the race to run, the announcers were still saying "Sooner or later we're going to get to go time and the drivers will stop logging laps." It wouldn't happen soon: The final round of pit stops began on Lap 170 with Bobby Labonte coming in, by Lap 173 everyone had pitted, mostly for fuel and tires on the right side. At one point, smoke was pouring off of Dale Jr.'s car, but he stayed out and it cleared up, and Mark Martin's Toyota was thought to have lost a cylinder but that also cleared itself up.
On Lap 176, Jeff Burton hit the front stretch wall, bringing another caution. Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup Champion, having been in two incidents including getting chewed up in the crash on Lap 31, was now leading the race, tape all over his car to keep it together.
The race went green again on Lap 181 with 25 cars on the lead lap, the order being Keselowski, Biffle, Patrick, Gordon, Johnson, Martin, Earnhardt, Jr., Ambrose, David Reutimann, Hamlin. With just 19 laps left drivers had to start doing something, but up to this point anyone who dove to the inside other than Danica Patrick was still going backward. Then a group led by Jimmie Johnson, winner in 2006, got it going and by Lap 190 the race was Keselowski and Johnson side-by-side swapping the lead by a matter of inches, followed by Hamlin, Biffle, Bowyer, Patrick, Logano, Jr., Gordon, Martin. A win for Keselowski would have been extra special because the defending Sprint Cup champion hasn't won the Daytona 500 since 2000.
Then came another debris caution on Lap 192. Johnson had got ahead of Keselowski by inches, and on the inside line becaue he shot down with a pack of cars bunched up while the cars on the outside were spaced out. When the caution was called, Johnson had lane choice and he naturally took the outside line.
When racing resumed again lap 194, Johnson and Keselowski kept going at it, but the pack of cars on the outside stayed tight, those on the inside line put up a fight but couldn't get it done. On Lap 197 it was Johnson, Biffle, Patrick, Earnhardt, Jr., Martin, Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Regan Smith, J.J. Yeley and Michael McDowell.
Then just after the white flag, Earnhardt, Jr. dove down the inside and blasted from fourth to second, but he couldn't pass his Hendricks Motorports teammate Johnson.
At the checkered flag it was Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick, Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley. It was the second Daytona 500 win for Johnson, who otherwise hasn't done better than 27th the past three years.
The final stats: It was Hendrick's seventh win at Daytona; after three hours and ten minutes racing, there were 24 cars on the lead lap; 14 drivers led the race with 29 lead changes; 43 drivers started, 35 made it to the finish; and there were six cautions that swallowed up 24 laps.
And there's even a treat for those of you who aren't NASCAR fans: Because Ryan Newman finished in top ten, you get a Bloomin' Onion at participating Outback Steakhouses when you make another purchase. Enjoy.
The NASCAR action continues again next weekend at Phoenix.