Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fireworks All Around at Daytona as Harvick Claims Coke Zero 400

Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/ Getty Images for NASCAR

Through the month of June, some NASCAR fans could argue that the latter 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup shows have equated to less than stellar competitions. With two events ending during suspect debris flag cautions which created a last race dash for the checkered flag, the art of active passes for the lead (not just exchanges due to pit stops) appeared to be a dying art form in this most popular stock car racing series. The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway a potent counter to the rather dull racing action.

With much ado about racing on the 31 year old asphalt surface, a sense of nostalgia hung over the 2.5 mile superspeedway compounded with Dale Earnhardt Jr's victory in a Wrangler-sponsored #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. As the green green dropped for the Coke Zero 400, attention was turned to the present and a 90-minute race delay due to a light rain shower.

Setting the field on points based on a Friday rain-out of qualifying, the #29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevy of Kevin Harvick led the 43-car field to green. From the start, Harvick was destined to prove that the appointed pole position was worthy for himself and the RCR team. Briefly breaking away with a four-car pack, challengers to Harvick came fast and often. On lap 11, Jeff Gordon took the lead in the #24 Chevrolet for one lap and then Kyle Busch's #18 Toyota surged forward to a few laps prior to the competition caution.

With the field coming to the attention of their pit crews, Kevin Harvick's #29 retook the lead through a two-tire pit stop advantage over Kyle Busch. As the green flew, the field of Sprint Cup cars continued to fight hard within the Coke Zero 400. Surprises added to the lead pack of this Daytona restrictor plate event as Elliott Sadler, Martin Truex Jr and Sam Hornish Jr were enjoying season-best runs through the early stage of the Daytona Sprint Cup race.

Into the initial laps of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, tires became a major buzz subject. On lap 28, contender Kyle Busch brought his Interstate Batteries Toyota to the attention of his Joe Gibbs Racing crew citing a loose wheel. After the stop, Kyle Busch in the #18 Toyota would rejoin the race in 38th place benefiting at least from the long 2.5 mile oval keeping him on the lead lap.

Kevin Harvick, able to retain the lead early in the run taking only right-side rubber only, began falling prey to the cars wearing four tires as the #29 was failing to keep grip on the paced Daytona surface. Harvick would fall to 14th while Kurt Busch driving the #2 Miller Lite Dodge led the pack. Sadler also led the race within the first 1/4 distance in his #19 Ford but the Penske Racing NASCAR teams came on strong as the #2, #12 and #77 would lead.

With pit stops occurring 30 laps prior, top cars such as the #48 Chevy of Jimmie Johnson and the #17 Ford of Matt Kenseth pitted with concerned with their tires. In fact, on the #17 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, a massive chunk was missing out of one tire. On lap 59, a yellow flag fell on the field when debris from the #46 car lost right front tire. NASCAR waited several laps aon flying the caution same race teams were making pit stops.

On the resatrt on lap 64, Montoya sends the Target #42 Chevrolet to the lead. Having started the race from the rear in a backup car, #11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin had progressed quickly into the top-5 by lap 65. By lap 77, Hamlin claimed the lap lead allowing him to score five bonus points to the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Showing some consistent strength, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization found their way to the front. Recovering from the tire problem of lap 28, Kyle Busch would resume leadership of the Coke Zero 400 right before the event's halfway mark ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Sam Hornish. The lead would be jockeyed around as the field neared green flag pit stops.

Amongst the exchange of cars reentering the track on lap 104, Kyle Busch was turned by the #42 of Juan Pablo Montoya down Daytona's superstretch. Acquiring hard front end damage, the #18 was retired on the apron of turn 3 with an understandably disgruntled Kyle Busch stepping out of his #18 Toyota. Sarcastically remarking that he wrecked himself, Busch left little hide his emotions of what he felt was avoidable contact from the #42 Chevy.

With a restart on lap 111, Montoya led over Mark Martin #5 Chevy (Martin's pit stop timing allowed him to gain this position). Well past halfway in the Daytona 400 mile race, the early tire issues seemed to have settled itself out. However, on lap 114 Matt Kenseth barely avoided setting off what could have been a multi-car crash through master car control. Experiencing a second tire related problem , the #17 Ford of Kenseth rejoined the field cleanly but an accident was destined to transpire within the Sprint Cup field on lap 116. In turn 3, the #6 Ford team of David Ragan had his second crash of the weekend when he collided with the #1 Chevy of Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray.

Multi-car organizations were a major factor for the Coke Zero 400. First with Penske Racing and then with Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that would emerge supreme at the end was Richard Childress Racing. While Kevin Harvick and the #29 team showed power early, the entire three-car team united at the front through the last 1/4 distance as #31 of Jeff Burton and the #33 belonging to driver Clint Bowyer began swapping the lead within the most aggressive final stints of the Coke Zero 400. Hoping to spoil the effort was the #2 of Kurt Busch who took the lead as a caution again flew on lap 141. The #17 Ford was finally claimed after averting so many potential wrecks. The #5 of Mark Martin and the #19 of Elliot Sadler were also involved in this incident which would only be a precursor to what would be a big wreck a few circuits following a lap 146 restart.

Running down the Daytona superstretch, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton heatedly fought for position rubbing into each other. Burton got wobbly but caught his #31 car but contact was made once again with the #2 Dodge sending Kurt Busch sideways into the turn 3 infield. As the result of the contact up front, a chain reaction caused the #83 Toyota being driven by Reed Sorenson to be turned while traveling down the backstretch. This triggered a massive pile-up amounting to a wall of cars through turn 3 collecting at least 16 cars including the winner of the last two Cup races Jimmie Johnson.

Photo Credit: John Harrelson/ Getty Images for NASCAR

Phenomenally, coming through the wreck nearly unscathed was the #88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. While never having an ideal handling car within the Coke Zero 400, the Hendrick Motorsport #88 car was lucky for a change to not be caught in misfortune.

Necessitating a red flag to clean up the chaos, Mark Martin returned to he pit road with his #5 car on fire as some fast-acting members of the #48 helped removed the driver from the car. Fortunately, Martin was none the worst for wear following the scary ordeal. Involved in the accident, the #2 Dodge of Kurt Busch left with minor damage but with the persistent efforts of his Miller Lite Penske Racing pit crew was returned to racing action.

Creating a 8 lap dash to settle this NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the green flag flew with Clint Bowyer restarting on the outside as the #99 Ford of Carl Edwards started on the inside. The Richard Childress Racing three-car group all hung together in the draft making the efforts of other cars difficult. However, showing up to the front at just the perfect time, Jeff Gordon brought his #24 Chevrolet in front of Burton breaking the three-way draft on lap 156 and would swim to the lead one lap later. Just before the RCR team could retaliate, caution came out timely on lap 158 when the #77 of Hornish swept up to teammate Kurt Busch's #2 car out of turn 4 tapping himself into a wreck which involved the #19 Ford of Elliott Sadler who retired in the tri-oval after such a promising race early.

With a green-white-checker restart, the #29 of Kevin Harvick returned to the front surging past the #24 with a push from Kasey Kahne's #9 Ford. Into the last lap, the potential winner Clint Bowyer was sent out of control down the Daytona backstretch through a frenzy to the checkered flag. Since the accident happened as the field was already passing the #33 Chevy, no caution allowed the field to race back to the finish line for position. At the line, Kevin Harvick brought his #29 RCR Chevy home first followed by Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. With many cars lost due to accidents, cars continued to wreck as they past the start/finish line.

After 4 and half hours which involved rain, a red flag and one of the most exciting 400 miles (actually 415 miles following 6 extra laps created by the green-white-checker restart) Daytona Sprint Cup race has ever experienced on the 2.5 mile superspeedway, Kevin Harvick took his second win of the season padding a healthy point advantage over 2nd place in the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.

Finishing fourth and now 11th in NASCAR Sprint Cup driver's points, Dale Earnhardt Jr ended up with his best performance in the last quarter of the season but your would not have been able to tell by the #88 Chevy driver's post-race interview. Describing as team as 'lucky rather than good' for the night, he confessed that the wrecks allowed the Hendrick Motorsport car to rise at the end. Though 4th at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr was unable to lead a single lap in the Coke Zero 400.

Upon surprises in the top 10 were several cars including both Red Bull Racing cars (Reed Sorenson in 8th and Scott Speed in 10th) as well as the TRG Motorsports #71 Chevrolet piloted by Mike Bliss for the weekend. A team vacated by Bobby Labonte two races prior unsatisfied that the #71 Chevy was going to be a start-and-park machine too often, the TRG Motorsports team went to distance. Also going the distance was the Tommy Baldwin Racing #36 Chevrolet which charged from 39th to 13th. Driven by former Sprint Cup regular Steve Park, the race team is still well out of the top 35 in car owner points after too many struggles to begin the season.

Entering into the second half of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season next week at Chicagoland Speedway, Kevin Harvick now holds a commanding 212 point lead in the driver standings ahead of now 2nd place Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson as well as #11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin lost considerable ground in the points since being caught on the major pile-up at Daytona.

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