DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 120-lap DRIVE4COPD 300 saw a mix of racing styles featured this week at the Daytona International Speedway. The Sprint Cup regulars utilized the two-car tandems, while the majority of Nationwide regulars raced in the typical large pack as they tried to figure out how to work the two-car draft. In the end, it came down to a battle amongst Cup regulars Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Kyle Busch and Joey Logano; and Tony Stewart and outside polesitter Landon Cassill.
Taking the white flag, Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr. led the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates who were pushing hard to the front. Coming out of turn 2, Logano lost his No. 20 Toyota and slammed the outside wall, thus ruining Busch’s push to the front. When the JGR teammates found trouble on the last lap, the Stewart-Cassill tandem lined up behind Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr. as they roared through the final two corners.
As the leaders came off turn 4, Earnhardt Jr. dove to the inside of Bowyer looking for the lead, allowing Stewart and Cassill to shoot to the outside. Coming to the line, Stewart’s No. 4 Oreo/Ritz Chevrolet edged Bowyer’s No. 33 Rheem Chevrolet by a mere 0.007 seconds – the third closest finish in series history and closest series finish at Daytona.
After swapping with just two laps to go, Stewart positioned himself ahead of Cassill and set themselves up for a run to the checkers.
“We just got a great run and we had a great pusher in Landon Cassill there,” Stewart said in victory lane. “We were able to get the two of us up there, and [the engine] got hot and [I] had to switch. At that part of the race we didn’t have the luxury of just getting the right side out and getting air to it. I thought if we could get in front of Landon there, and as good as he was all day, we could make a hole to get through to get there.”
Perhaps a blessing in disguise, Stewart was forced to pit under the final caution of the day while running in the top five, after running over a piece of debris and cutting down a right-rear tire. Coming to pit road, the team took their time to pull out the sheet metal, clean off the grill and prepare for the final six laps.
“We had the flat tire under the caution. I didn’t realize that we had as many cars a lap down as what we had,” Stewart said. “But that’s what saved us in that. We were able to come in, put four tires on, restart 11th. The tire didn’t come apart when it went flat. We were able to get around to the pits without it coming apart and tearing the body off. That was a huge, huge key in this race really, was that flat tire.”
The victory was Stewart’s 10th career Nationwide Series victory, sixth Nationwide win at Daytona and fourth in a row. It also moves him to second on the all-time win list at the speedway, tied with Bobby Allison at 16 and second only to Dale Earnhardt – who had 32.
“It’s going to take a while to get to 32,” Stewart said. “But I guess he’s won seven Nationwide races, I guess, and we’re at six now. That’s a pretty cool feeling to know we’ve closed in on something that he’s done here.”
Losing out on his second race in three days, Bowyer struggled to grasp missing out at victory lane by thousandths of a second yet again. Leading for the majority of the day, coming home second was a tough pill to swallow.
“I think that Duel race was five thousandths of a second or something,” Bowyer said. “These thousandths, not that much fun losing by that much. It beats losing by farther.”
Finishing third, Cassill was able to shove Stewart to the win, but his day was not without incident. Starting on the outside of the front row, Cassill fell back through the pack early and was involved in two separate incidents, able to emerge from both without any significant damage. Working with Brad Keselowski to learn the two-car draft, Cassill was able to put himself in position late in the race.
“Yeah, it was just a crazy day,” he said. “We didn’t draft at all in practice. I was worried about that ’cause I’d never done this actually, I’ve never done any drafting before in the Nationwide Series. It was kind of a learn-on-the-fly deal.”
Despite his lack of drafting experience, Stewart explained watching Cassill charge through towards the leaders throughout the race working with Keselowski gave him the confidence to partner up with the No. 1 car in the closing laps.
One of the strongest cars all afternoon, Keselowski’s day ended early after contact with Cassill’s No. 1 Chevrolet sent his No. 22 Dodge sliding backwards through the frontstretch grass and back up across the track. Keselowski was then hit hard in the door by the No. 39 of Josh Wise. The incident spread debris all over the frontstretch – causing Stewart’s flat right rear – and brought out a red flag lasting five minutes and 36 seconds.
“I kind of got cut off,” Keselowski said. “I was trying to pass the [No.] 1 (Landon Cassill) car; we’d been working together early in the day. I think he was going to pull down back in front of me trying to work with me. I had someone pushing and you just can’t stop. He came down in front of me and I wanted to get underneath him and he just kept pushing and put me in the grass. It’s just one of them deals. Just a little bit of miscommunication.”
Despite constant communication throughout the entire race, the JGR teammates of Logano and Busch lost out on a win Saturday due after a miscommunication on the final lap. Pushing Logano to the front, Busch saw Stewart’s run coming and moved to the middle to block. When he did, the two bumpers did not line up and Logano was sent spinning.
“Completely my fault,” Busch admitted. “Unintentional, but just trying to make it to where the [No.] 4 (Stewart) didn’t have room to shoot up through the middle of us there and make us all three-wide all pushing each other. I hate it for those guys and Joey and everybody on the GameStop team.”
“It’s not his fault,” Logano said. “It’s just a product of this racing we’ve got. It sucks because you can’t do nothing about it. There’s nothing else we can do to make us stop doing it and unfortunately it’s just ridiculously stupid at the end of the day, and we were wrecking each other so that’s the hard part.”
With Cup regulars making up half of the top-10 finishing positions, Cassill leaves Daytona as the series leader by two points over Reed Sorenson, followed by Jason Leffler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. However, without a ride for next week’s race in Phoenix, Cassill will lose that lead once the green flag falls in Phoenix.
“I don’t have a ride next week, so I’m going to bask in this for the next several days,” Cassill said with a smile.
Saturday’s 300-mile race saw a total of 35 lead changes, tying a race record (1984 and 1986).
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