Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Firecracker 400 at Daytona Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kasey Kahne gave Tony Stewart just enough of a push to slip him by the dynamic duo of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Seconds later, Kahne was knocked sideways all pandemonium broke out behind him, handing Stewart his third Cup victory of 2012.

In a Nutshell: It took a while to get going but the end of the race featured more violence and mayhem than anything outside a Bruce Willis movie. You gotta love the plate tracks. (No, quite frankly I don’t.)

Dramatic Moment: Those last eight laps were like lighting a fuse and just waiting for the powder keg to blow.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

What is up with AJ Allmendinger? The shocking news he’d been suspended for failing a routine drug test broke just hours before the race, forcing Penske Racing to fly Sam Hornish Jr. back to Daytona with just minutes to spare.

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You always hate to see this sort of story break about a likeable young competitor but with the Olympics looming again, it’s likely we’re not done hearing about failed drug tests this summer. I’ll withhold judgment until we get some facts about the alleged infraction.

So who’s going to fill in for Allmendinger while he’s sidelined from one of the sport’s highest profile rides? Will Hornish continue to sub or will Roger Penske look for another free agent? We all know it won’t be last year’s driver of the No. 22 car, Kurt Busch. With Penske moving to Ford next year, will Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne get a shot at the wheel? It might be a good indicator of just how closely Penske and Roush will collaborate in the Ford camp next year.

NASCAR has manipulated the rules wildly in an attempt to break up the tandem racing so many fans professed to dislike. Let the record show in the end, the race was decided by three two-car tandems; the Nos. 17 and 16, the Nos. 14 and 5, and the Nos. 31 and 29. One driver from each tandem claimed a top-three finish while their wingmen took one on the chin.

Think there’s going to be some bad blood between Biffle and Kenseth this week? Biffle dutifully pushed Kenseth to the front for much of the race, then latched onto him again after pit road issues dropped them to the back of the pack. Together, the good friends appeared unstoppable up front, the only tandem that could use the outside lane to get to the lead.

But down the stretch it appeared Kenseth chop-blocked Biffle and got him sideways, causing the Big One on the biggest lap. Biffle was credited with just a 21st-place finish once the smoke cleared.

I think some of the sponsors involved in the sport need to have a serious look at all the different paint schemes they run on some cars. It makes it difficult for the fans, particularly new or casual one, to pick out who is at the wheel of which car. In the days of yore you had the black No. 3 car, the black, orange and yellow No. 28 car, and the bright orange No. 17. You knew at a glance who was running where.

Anyone who recalls the fatal pit-road accident involving Bill Elliott’s team at Atlanta in 1990 knows just how frightening the pit-road accident involving Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski was.

Brian France gave his annual midseason State of the Sport address this weekend. Some notes:

  • After a brief opening statement, France took questions for about 15 minutes. I’ve heard them take more time on AM radio in the Midwest listing grain prices at the local silos.
  • The gist of it is that NASCAR is considering shortening some race lengths next year, but by and large the schedule won’t have any major shakeups. The season will still feature an overabundance of cookie cookers with a light sprinkling of more interesting tracks. So I guess we still won’t have the Southern 500 run on Labor Day weekend next year. Sigh.
  • Glass dashboards? Dude, WTF are you babbling about? I think what the most esteemed Mr. France meant to say is that cars could have fully digital gauge panels in the dash, which fans at home would be able to access online.
  • NASCAR has strict guidelines on how many commercial interruptions their “network partners” may air during an hour of a race broadcast. Apparently, those strict guidelines are a whole lot more liberal than most of the fans actually watching the race on TV are able to handle. France was mute on whether he preferred mashed potatoes with gravy or mac and cheese.
  • NASCAR will not consider Bruton Smith’s idea of scheduling mandatory cautions during a race because they eschew “gimmickry.” On the other hand, the gimmicks that include the Chase, the Top-35 qualifying rules and the “wave-around” rule will continue.
  • While NASCAR, the organization he heads, embraces and endorses Twitter as an essential part of the new NASCAR landscape, BZF himself does not have a Twitter account to allow the fans he claims to care so deeply about to contact him. DuPont apparently hasn’t developed an oven mitt temperature resistant enough to allow him to view even the first batch of fan input on what he’s done to this sport. (For the record, I’ve been flirting with Twitter even as an ugly, aging old hippie. I’m at “@mcmatt76” but I still prefer reading your comments in the section devoted to such below this article. One-hundred forty characters is a pretty tough limit against which to hold an intelligent debate. With Twitter, U hav 2 rite like this.)

What was up with the lip synching in the post-race interviews on TNT? It looked like one of those Japanese Kung Fu movies they overdubbed in English. You know, the ones we used to watch on UHF in those cannabis and Genesee pony Saturday afternoons of my youth. (I’m told some viewers didn’t get the choppy synchronization, but I was far from the only one who noticed it.)

No jet driers were injured during the filming of Saturday night’s event. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Towards Track Drying Equipment monitored the filming of the race.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Obviously the weekend’s big loser was Allmendinger. If you were on vacation, he was suspended from driving in the Firecracker after failing a random drug test. As I write this column, no one has said it was an illegal drug. Other substances, including alcohol and performance-enhancing drugs can also trigger a positive drug test.

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Bowles-Eye View: Drugs, Disaster & How Racing Dreams Die - AJ's 2012 NASCAR Nightmare

So what happens next? Allmendinger has 72 hours to request his “B” sample be tested. (Roger Penske indicated Sunday he asked for that.) If ‘Dinger does, in fact fail and admits there’s an issue he can apply for reinstatement. That involves a program set up by NASCAR’s drug czar that might include rehab, education, and further testing. If a driver completes the program, he can return to competition.

Unfortunately, he’s also wearing a scarlet letter in the sponsors’ minds from that day forward and my guess is Allmendinger’s career is over. It’s a damn shame.

Jimmie Johnson failed to finish a plate-track race for the third time this season. He did manage to complete more than the single lap he ran in the Daytona 500.

I don’t know how badly Denny Hamlin’s sore back was hurting him before the 400, but it had to be a great deal more painful after his big wreck.

Austin Dillon has hit a rough patch. After winning last week’s Kentucky Nationwide Series race, he was penalized for his car being too low following post-race inspection, tarnishing the win. After claiming the pole at Daytona Friday, his car was once again declared illegal and he started from the rear.

While a fourth-place finish Friday night (sliding backwards across the finish line) wasn’t too bad, Dillon will doubtlessly lose some of those points he earned later this week when NASCAR issues penalties for the latest infraction.

How often is it that a single driver is tapped for not one but two potential relief driver roles? Kenny Wallace was tabbed to be the substitute for Kevin Harvick in case he had to fly home to be there for the birth of his son. He was then subsequently tagged to fill in with the No. 22 team if Hornish couldn’t arrive in time.

But Harvick didn’t have to leave and Hornish made it to the track by the skin of his teeth, ruining what would have been a huge career opportunity. Hopefully, Wallace got at least a few cases of Bud and Pennzoil as parting gifts.

Elliott qualified sixth and ran as high as third in the race before his hastily-assembled Turner Motorsports pit crew cost him a ton of positions on the first stop. Elliott’s evening ended with the disastrous wreck at the entrance to pit road.

Kyle Busch managed to keep his nose clean most of the evening running up front until getting caught up in a wreck with five laps to go. He also wrecked out of the NNS race on Friday and clearly wasn’t happy about it. Move along here, folks, nothing to see here.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Stewart qualified for the outside pole of the Firecracker but the time was disallowed after the No. 14 car failed post-qualifying inspection. He had to start out back with Hornish but still managed to drive on to the win. When the weather gets hot Stewart typically does too, and as anyone in the Midwest or Northeast can testify it’s damn hot out there right now.

I haven’t been able to learn the name of the NASCAR official assigned to the No. 2 team’s pit during the pit-road mayhem but he made one heck of a dash to safety, hurdling the wall moments before he would have been hit by the out of control No. 39 car. Like I said, that incident was a tragedy narrowly averted.

A 12th-place finish isn’t going to get Gordon into the Chase but his evening could easily have ended with that savage crash at the entrance of pit road.

What didn’t happen to Keselowski? As noted above his car got slammed while it was sitting parked in its pit stall. He then went ahead and spun himself out later in the event. I figure he’ll be satisfied taking his eighth-place check to the bank Monday morning but I don’t want to park anywhere near him when he does.

The car that struck the No. 2 car, Newman’s No. 39 suffered minimal damage (in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king) and the SHR driver was able to post a fifth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Stewart has won four of the last eight Firecrackers 400s. The win was also his third of the season, tying him with Keselowski in that category.
  • Perhaps even more impressive is the fact Stewart won a Cup race for the 47th time in just his 482nd start. That’s roughly one win every 10 starts.
  • Kenseth and Johnson lead all drivers with top-five finishes in half of this season’s 18 points races. Kenseth, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lead in the top-10 finish category with 13 such finishes a piece.
  • Jeff Burton’s second-place finish was his best of the season. (His previous best had also been scored at this track, a fifth place finish in the Daytona 500.) It was just the fifth top-five result for any RCR Cup driver this season and matches Harvick’s second place finish at Phoenix as the best run by the RCR trio.
  • The top-10 finishers (survivors?) at Daytona drove four Chevys, three Toyotas, two Fords and a Dodge.
  • Kenseth has just one finish outside the top 10 in the last nine races.
  • Logano’s fourth-place finish was just his second Cup top-five result this season.
  • Newman’s fifth-place result was his first top 10 since he won at Martinsville.
  • Carl Edwards‘s sixth-place run was his best since Fontana.
  • I don’t understand how the purses for NASCAR races work. In February, Kahne earned nearly $300,000 for a 29th-place finish. He earned just over $125,000 for a seventh-place run here Saturday.
  • Michael Waltrip’s ninth-place finish was his first top-10 result since Talladega last fall.
  • Bobby Labonte’s 10th-place drive was his best since Loudon last summer.
  • David Reutimann’s 11th-place finish was easily his best of the season.
  • Though he wound up with a wrecked racecar, Earnhardt is still credited with completing every lap run in this year’s Cup Series competition.

What’s the Points?

Kenseth retains his points lead and is beginning to gap the field. He’s now 25 points ahead of Earnhardt, who remains second in the standings.

Biffle retook third place from Johnson, who had an even worse night than his.

Stewart leapfrogged ahead four spots to fifth in the standings, albeit a considerable 84 points out of the lead.

Cue up the Tom Petty because Clint Bowyer is free-fallin’ thee spots to 10th, with only the safety net of a single win to keep him in contention. Hamlin is slightly more comfortable, though down two spots to seventh but with two wins this year.

As it stands right now the two wildcard slots would be filled by Kyle Busch (12th in points, one win) and Joey Logano (14th in points, one win.) Logano is just one point ahead of Newman, who has also won a race this year.

Still outside looking in are Gordon and Edwards. Like a castle in the corner of a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble, but I stay here just the same.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic): We’ll give the Firecracker three cans of well dented-up and shaken not stirred Bud. Of course, any plate race that doesn’t maim a driver or wind up with a flaming racecar in the grandstands gets an extra can for defying the odds.

Next year’s Daytona 500 will mark the 25th anniversary of NASCAR reintroducing the plates as a “temporary measure” until a more permanent solution could be developed at Daytona and Talladega.

Next Up: It’s off to the Monotonous Mile in New Hampshire.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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