Saturday, July 04, 2009

On Type Delay: The Firecracker 400 (AKA The Coke Zero 400)

Even if we don't really like restrictor plate racing, we are drawn to the potential wreckfest with great anticipation. Even though much of the racing is out of the driver's hands, there is just something about it that makes it exciting. It's not the kind of racing we normally think of as racing, but that's exactly what it is--racing in an abnormal definition. Anything can happen, and that is why we watch, and have fun watching.

Besides, no matter what the sponsor's name is, this is the Firecracker 400, and it is on the Fourth of July for the first time in many years.

Jeff Gordon leads the first lap on the outside lane. With help from Denny Hamlin, Kurt Bush takes the lead by splitting the two lines on lap 3, leaving Jeff Gordon hung out to dry. Hamlin takes the lead on lap 5. There will be a lot of this throughout the race, so we will eventually lose track of every lead change.

Lap 10 and the cars are spread out in single file for the most part. This is normal for a night race at Daytona Early in the race, the drivers are working on figuring out what adjustments they need, or will need for the changing conditions. We won't be seeing a lot of aggression this early in the race. And on lap 13 just as we wrote that last sentence, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth make contact, and Martin goes spinning into the infield. Montoya almost gets by without getting hit by Martin's car, but it was only almost, and Juan Pablo gets by with some damage to the rear end body work of his car. The leaders pit. Kurt Busch slides through his pit and loses time in the pits. Stewart gets out of the pits first, and lines up on the inside row. Restart on lap 17.

By lap 18, the drivers up front are again in single file. Kurt Busch, who restarted in 27th is already up to 19th, a result of the advantage given to position by the new double file restart. On lap 22 the top five are Stewart, Johnson, Hamlin, Jeff Burton, and Kenseth. The top six are pulling away from the rest of the field.

That Burger King commercial that they showed in the sub screen got me. I was thinking "Oh no, not now, not today," when Stewart was reporting a vibration and a car that had its handling going away, with Darrien Grubb trying to keep him calm and trying to keep him on the track for just five more laps. It takes the King, not King Richard, but creepy King Burger King--who just happens to be riding along in the car--to calm him down by giving him some french fries. It was a very clever commercial, and it reminded us how appropriate it is that Stewart's part time sponsor switched from Subway to Burger King. Tony Stewart is nothing if he isn't a burgers and fries guy.

Casey Mears spins out and hits the inside wall on lap 28, bringing out the second caution. The leaders pit and at the restart on lap 31, it's Stewart, Hamlin, Kenseth, Sadler and Johnson in the top 5. Hamlin takes the lead on lap 33, and then has to move down to block a hard charging Kyle Busch. On lap 34, it's Hamlin, Busch, Stewart, Kenseth, and Johnson in the top five. Things settle down again by lap 36, and the lead cars are once again in single file.

Stewart gets to the outside and around Kyle Busch on lap 45, and moves into second, then slingshots around Hamlin and takes the lead on lap 46 with not drafting help. This is one of the things we like about the Sprint Cup car--the cars can pass for the lead without help, by using the old school maneuver of draft and slingshot.

Hamlin tries to race Stewart side by side, gets hung out by himself, and falls back into line in the fourth position. Montoya gets lapped on lap 50. On lap 51, the top five are Stewart, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kurt Busch, who seems to have recovered from his earlier pit snafu with some authority.

Bad news for Junior Nation, as Jr has fallen back to twenty-fourth, and is reporting some serious handling issues.

Matt Kenseth pits under the green, dropping out of third place, on lap 56. This turns out to be the old "pit just before the caution" strategy as the caution flies on lap 57after Sam Hornish, Jr brushes the wall and leaves debris on the track. Kenseth stays out while the rest of the field pits. The first five out of the pits are Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin. Kenseth will lead the restart on lap 61. Stewart starts to take the lead, but gets stuck by himself and drops back to fifth. But he hooks up again, finding the right place to be at the right time, and one lap later finds himself in third, behind Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Now it's hard to listen to radio chatter without thinking it's just another ad. But Johnson is having some handling problems, but is managing to hang in among the top six.

On lap 72, with weather reported on its way, Kyle Busch moves up the track, allowing Stewart to pass below him, then Stewart takes the lead. On lap 73, Carl Edwards moves into the third position. Hamlin gets the lead back on lap 74. On lap 76, the top five are Hamlin, Stewart, Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson. On lap 77 there is a big wreck on the backstretch, involving Dale Jr, David Stremme, David Reutimann, Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, and Jeff Gordon, among others. There are actually thirteen cars involved. Joey Logano barely avoids the wreck. The leaders pit on lap 80, and Stewart's excellent pit crew and pit position get him off of pit road first, once again giving him the lead.

John Andretti stayed out, and is scored in the lead. He pits before the race goes green, and the restart is on lap 82, with Stewart first, followed by Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Kurt Busch. Hamlin takes the lead on lap 83.

On lap 89 the top five are Hamlin, Stewart, Kyle Busch, Edwards, and Jimmie Johnson. Jamie McMurray pits out of ninth position on lap 99. Caution on lap 102 as Reutimann cuts a front right tire and hits the wall. The leaders pit on lap 104. Stewart again gets off of pit road first. Johnson has some issues in the pits because he is too close to the wall. He was in fourth, and comes out in nineteenth. McMurray is scored in the lead, but he pits again. The top five at the restart will be Stewart, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and Jeff Burton. Stewart holds the lead, thanks to a very healthy push by Kyle Busch, and the top five on lap 109 are Stewart, Kyle Busch, Burton, David Ragan, and Matt Kenseth. Hamlin gets dropped back to 12th.

With 45 laps to go Hamlin has made it back into the top six or seven. Kyle Busch gets hung out, and Burton moves into second. Busch moves back into the field, breaking up the potential Roush train of Ragan, Kenseth, and Edwards, then moves back into third, with 42 laps to go. With 39 laps to go, David Ragan and Kurt Busch make contact while going four wide--at Daytona--and bring out a caution. The leaders all pit again with 38 laps to go.

Stewart comes off of pit road first, Edwards second, Kyle Busch third, after having to avoid Robby Gordon entering his pit. Jeff Burton comes out fourth, and Matt Kenseth is fifth. Things should be picking up some now. The restart will be with 35 to go. The weather that was coming has broken up, according to radio chatter between Bob Osborne and his driver Carl Edwards. Edwards takes the lead, after Kyle moves up to the outside, but Stewart also moves tho the outside and falls in line in third. Jeff Burton takes the lead with 33 to go, after Stewart drafts him and follows him into second. Now Stewart takes the lead with Kyle Busch behind him. Jeff Burton drops back, and gets involved in a race with Montoya, who has made it from being a lap down, to getting a free pass, and is now battling for a top five position. Johnson moves into fourth. Burton cuts a tire and has to pit. With 30 to go, the top five are Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Montoya. The top four cars are almost two seconds ahead of the rest of the pack.

With fifteen laps to go, the caution flies because, as far as we can tell, Kyle Busch suggested that there had to be another caution before the end of the race. Joking aside, there must have been debris, as the cleaning crew is on the track. This is going to be fun. Everybody pits. Off of pit road, it's Stewart, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Johnson, and Kenseth. Wow.

It looks like Stewart will take the inside lane, which will put Hamlin behind him. Johnson is behind Busch. We love these "shootout style" restarts. 12 to go and the green flies. Hamlin pushes Stewart to a clear lead, then Johnson moves down behind Stewart and takes second. With ten to go, it's Stewart, Johnson, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Kenseth. With nine to go, Scott Speed, running in fifteenth, gets tangled with somebody and hits the wall. Logano once again does a good job avoiding the wreck. Caution. The top five are Stewart, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Johnson, and Kenseth.

Now Stewart will have Busch behind him, and Hamlin, on the outside, will have Johnson behind him. We expect the Gibbs drivers to team up after the restart, and Johnson will help his technical team mate, Stewart. Just speculating here. Getting caught up in the excitement of the moment.

Being nerve-wracked is a rush, restart with five to go. Stewart gets the edge on the restart. Johnson gets down behind Busch, leaving Hamlin out, but Hamlin gets down in front of Johnson. So now it's Stewart, Busch, Hamlin, and Johnson in the top four, running nose to tail. Two to go. Right at the end of the lap, Kyle Busch gets around Stewart after a push from Hamlin on the outside, but Hamlin falls back, and Busch is on his own. Down the backstretch on the final lap, Johnson, running in third, catches up to Stewart, and starts pushing him. Stewart gets up behind Busch going through turn three. Stewart goes low, and Busch blocks, Stewart goes high, and Busch goes to block, and runs into Stewart's bumper. Kyle wrecks, Stewart wins, what a finish!

Johnson finishes second, Hamlin third, Edwards fourth, and Kurt Busch fifth. Marcose Ambrose, Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, and Elliott Sadler fill out the top ten.

Stewart doesn't like the way he won, but we feel that both Stewart and Busch were doing what they had to do to win. Stewart was already on Kyle Busch's right rear quarter panel when Busch moved up to block him. "I wanted to give him (Busch) a good finish...I apologize if I did something wrong, but I don't think I did," lamented Stewart in victory lane.

Indeed, Kyle Busch's wreck collected Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano, among others, so it was an ugly victory. But it was a victory, and, in the end, that's all that matters.

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