*In A Nutshell* The season is new. The series’ title sponsor is new. Many of the rules are new. The results, however, were not. The NASCAR Nationwide Series remained “Cup Light” in its opening race, with Tony Stewart taking the checkered flag as one of nine Sprint Cup regulars to finish in the Top 10 in Saturday’s Camping World 300.
Stewart, the first pole-sitter to win the race in over two decades, showcased Toyota’s newfound horsepower convincingly, proving absolutely impossible to pass over the last third of the race. Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr. and Brian Vickers all mounted furious charges, but no one had enough steam to pass Stewart’s No. 20. “This Toyota was unreal,” said an ecstatic Stewart in victory lane after leading 46 of 120 laps.
Stewart’s victory did not come without challenges. Kyle Busch delivered a 1-2 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing with his No. 18. Though Busch’s car actually appeared to handle better than Stewart’s on the long run, Busch was never able to get enough drafting help to make the pass. Neither was Earnhardt, Jr., who had to settle for a quiet third place finish in his Nationwide debut with Hendrick Motorsports.
Martin Truex, Jr. had the most competitive Chevrolet all day and ran with Stewart and Busch throughout the race. His chances at victory were foiled during a lengthy final pit stop that saw him overshoot his pit box and have tire problems on the right front. He settled for 11th.
Bryan Clauson was the highest finishing Nationwide regular, scoring an impressive 6th place finish in his Daytona debut.
*Who Should Have Won* Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was just as stout under the hood as Stewart’s, and Busch led more laps (47) than any other driver in the field. Unlike Stewart’s No. 20, Busch’s car maintained its handling throughout a full tire run. Busch was the only driver able to consistently challenge Stewart for position, but the inability of Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to align behind him late denied him a shot at the win. Busch himself said it best, “It’s just a shame to come in second with such a great race car.”
A rookie driver out of the Chip Ganassi stable made a lot of noise at Daytona today, and it wasn’t Dario Franchitti. Bryan Clauson, making only the sixth Nationwide start of his career and first at Daytona, held his own through an intense final run and scored a sixth place finish. Clauson was the highest finishing Raybestos rookie candidate and the only Top 10 finisher not driving full-time in Sprint Cup. Between Clauson, and Sorenson on the Cup side, Ganassi’s plate program is proving up to par, which is not helping Franchitti as he continues to struggle through Speedweeks (he finished a distant 20th today).
Full-time Cup drivers led 119 of the 120 laps run on Saturday. Kirk Shelmerdine was the only other driver to lead a lap, meaning that Nationwide Series regulars failed to lead a single lap in their season debut.
Brad Coleman finished one lap down in 26th place in his debut with Baker-Curb Motorsports in the No. 27 Ford. Wonder how he felt seeing the No. 18 he drove last year running up front all day long?
Steve Grissom returned to abuse the past champion’s provisional again, netting nearly $43 grand for his 3 laps run and 43rd place finish.
*Better Luck Next Time*
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer’s quest for the Nationwide Series title got off to a rocky start at Daytona. Bowyer got loose exiting Turn 2 and scrubbed the wall hard on Lap 98. He finished a lap down in 25th.
Marcos Ambrose: After scraping the wall, Ambrose cut a tire and was forced to make an unscheduled stop. Ambrose later brought out the caution on Lap 78 when damaged sheet metal flew off his car. He later blew another tire and called it quits, parking for the day and finishing 39th.
Rusty Wallace, Inc.: David Stremme couldn’t buy a break this weekend. After having transmission problems during qualifying Friday, Stremme stormed from the back of the field and made up over twenty positions in the first dozen or so laps, all to have his engine let go on lap 17. He ended up 42nd. Steven Wallace ran a clean race all day, showing marked improvement from his crash-filled rookie campaign. Nevertheless, his day ended in a crash when Brad Keselowski spun his No. 66 in Turn 4 on Lap 111, collecting Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and others. Wallace ended up with a wrecked car and a bitterly disappointing 37th place finish.
*Underdog Performer of the Race*
Bryan Clauson (read Worth Noting above)
17 Cup drivers started the Camping World 300 (18 if you count soon-to-be Cup driver Michael McDowell)
17 of the year’s 43 starting spots have gone to Cup drivers.
9 Cup drivers finished in the Top 10 of the Camping World 300.
1 of 1 races run have been won by Cup drivers.
9 of the Top 10 in Nationwide Series points are Cup drivers.
“It was a good run for us in the Interstate Batteries Toyota. It’s just a shame to come in second with such a great race car. I had a good time out there and it was definitely a lot of fun to have a car that was driving that well.” _Kyle Busch_
“I just kept telling ‘em if we can get some help or get wedged in between some good cars we can do some business. And luckily there at the end I was able to get hooked up with the 17. I don’t know who was behind me but they were pushing the crap out of me and I was trying to do the same. It was a lot of fun.” _Bryan Clauson_
It’s been a bad day. It’s not the way you want to start the season. We scrubbed the wall just a little bit, and then cut a tire about seven or eight laps later. We came in and fixed it and went back out, and then we lost the sheet metal. We did everything but crash again, came in and fixed that. Then we cut another tire. In the end, we called it day.” _Marcos Ambrose_
It’s off to the west coast and California Speedway for the Stater Brothers 300 next Saturday night. Coverage starts at 7:30 PM ET on ESPN2.