Race No. 18 of the 2009 Sprint Cup Series schedule brought the world’s 43 best drivers back to where it all began six months ago: Daytona, the epicenter of stockcar racing.
Nine races to go before the Chase to the Cup Championship, and 25 years after “The King” Richard Petty’s historic 200th career victory, nothing less than fireworks would be accepted from the fans in attendance for the Coke Zero 400.
Rain on Friday rained out qualifying, so points leader Tony Stewart started on pole for the third time this season.
Greg Biffle and Sam Hornish, Jr. started in the back thanks to a wreck during Thursday night’s practice. The No. 00 of David Reutimann also went to the back because of an engine change.
Three lead changes occurred in the first four laps; second place starter Jeff Gordon led the first lap, Stewart the second, and Denny Hamlin, who started sixth, took the lead on lap four. Gordon would fall back to 26th after losing the lead.
Mark Martin brought out the first caution when, on lap 13, he slid across the nose of former teammate Matt Kenseth's No. 17 DeWalt Ford. Juan Pablo Montoya also received minimal damage.
It wouldn't be the last time former teammates got together.
The first pit stops of the day saw the No. 14 Burger King crew put their driver back into the lead. They would have phenomenal pit stops throughout the event.
With Stewart remaining in the lead, the second yellow flag of the day came out when David Stremme and Casey Mears got together.
After the leaders hit pit road, Stewart maintained the lead over former teammate Hamlin, Kenseth, Robby Gordon, and Richard Petty Motorsports' Elliot Sadler. However, a lap after they took the green, Hamlin passed Stewart for the lead. He would lead a total of 62 laps but would be passed by Stewart on lap 38 when he became the lone car in the outside lane.
Debris from Hornish, Jr., who cut a right rear tire, brought out the third caution. Ryan Newman stayed out to lead a lap, but it was Kenseth who would lead them to the green on lap 62.
Going back to the outside, Hamlin would retake the lead thanks to drafting help from Kyle Busch, who was followed by Stewart. Kenseth fell back to seventh during the 15-lap run.
Daytona's infamous "Big One" struck on lap 75 when David Stremme again found himself crashing into the wall. Thirteen cars (Stremme, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Reed Sorenson, David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman, and Jamie McMurray) were involved in the incident.
Harvick and Gordon made repairs on pit road. Earnhardt, Jr. was forced to take his No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet to the garage.
“Couple of guys got together, and I just tried to stay high. The (No.) 00 was crossed up and tore the upper A frame up. It was a tough race for us,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. He would end up finishing 39th.
Eight laps of cleanup saw the leaders pit, and Stewart once again assumed the lead after John Andretti (who had stayed out to lead a lap) pitted. Hamlin, though, would once again take advantage of the high line and take the lead.
On lap 102, after a 19-lap green flag run, Reutimann brought out the race's fifth caution. Robby Gordon would stay out to lead a lap, but thanks to another great pit stop, Stewart would take the lead for the sixth time.
Stewart, Hamlin, and Busch ran in the top five nearly the entire race.
Once again trying to pass on the high side would come back to bite Hamlin, who ended up falling all the way to 10th.
Kurt Busch and David Ragan made contact to bring out caution on lap 121. Once again Stewart kept the lead.
Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton would each take a turn at the lead before ultimately relinquishing it to Stewart. Burton lost a tire shortly after losing the lead.
After being involved in the first caution on lap 13, the No. 42 of Montoya rebounded and was running in the top five. Kahne, who was caught up in Daytona's "Big One," ran 15th. It was a strong run for the Petty cars, two of whom finished in the top 15. A.J. Allmendinger finished 16th.
Debris brought out caution on lap 145, allowing the No. 14 crew to once again show their stuff and keep their driver in the lead.
Three laps after the green flag waved, the yellow flag came back out after Scott Speed hit the wall. The incident also collected Allmendinger and McMurray, who both received minimal damage. It would also set up a four-lap dash to the finish.
And a dash—and crash—it would prove to be.
With one lap to go, Kyle Busch, with help from teammate Hamlin, took the lead from Stewart. However, after being dumped by drafting partner Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin fell back behind Busch and Stewart.
As the checkered flag was about to be raised, Johnson bump-drafted Stewart, sending him to the bumper of the No. 18.
Stewart went for the cross over, and after Busch tried to block him, he was clipped by the No. 14, sending him spinning into the wall.
Busch then slammed into the hood of the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge of Kahne, who pushed the Interstate Batteries Toyota to its 14th place finish. The wreck also collected Allmendinger, Burton, and Joey Logano.
"The fireworks are going off in the sky, but the fireworks on the racetrack are even bigger," commentator Ralph Sheheen said as Busch climbed from his car.
Busch, who declined to talk to the media after the race, was released from the infield care center despite rumors he would be held overnight for observation.
"I don't know that I was real proud of that, but I don't know what else I could've done," Stewart said in Victory Lane. "I don't like winning like that. If I did something wrong, I'm sorry. But I don't think I did."
The only change in Chase positions were Juan Pablo Montoya, thanks to a ninth place finish, who moved up to 11th, and Kahne, who moved into the Chase in 12th. Mark Martin is now 65 points out of the Chase with eight races remaining until the cutoff in Richmond.
This article also appears on SoCalSportsHub.com