DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.— Despite winning Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Tony Stewart still isn’t a fan of the current rules package for the two restrictor-plate tracks.
He seems to be in the right place at the right time at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, but he’s not sure why. It’s a mystery why he seems to miss all the big crashes. And when it comes to winning, he generally has the right strategy – even if he doesn’t fully understand it.
“I’m still voting for a figure-eight race here,” he said.
Saturday’s race was everything that’s good and bad about racing with restrictor plates. The plates are used at Daytona and Talladega to reduce speeds for safety reasons. They also tend to bunch up the field, which usually leads to multicar crashes.
That was the case Saturday night.
Matt Kenseth led a 30-car line for most of the first 200 miles. Drivers were content with putting as many miles behind them before making a move. The closer the race came to a conclusion, the crazier things got.
It started with a six-car crash shortly past the halfway mark. It continued with an eight-car crash a few laps later and a 14-car chain-reaction in the final 10 laps. Stewart drove around trouble in the first two crashes and was just ahead of the problems in the stretch drive.
Kenseth led the final restart with teammate Greg Biffle serving as his wingman. Stewart managed to pry them apart in the second turn of the final lap. The divide and conquer approach worked with Stewart pulling away in the final mile with Jeff Burton running second and Kenseth settling for third.
As the lead pack ran off the fourth turn, Biffle bumped Kevin Harvick’s car and that set off an 18-car crash at the line.
“I don’t even remember what happened that last lap,” Stewart said. “You know, it’s hard. I mean, it’s hard. The great thing about it is that 43 cars all have the same shot at winning the race. But that’s also part of what makes it frustrating, too.”
NASCAR and fans didn’t like restrictor-plate rules package a year ago because drivers grouped up in two-car tandems. Cars now have smaller radiators and front grilles to keep cars from running nose-to-tail.
The new rules drained most of the action away from the first half and it made cars difficult to control in the second. It was either follow-the-leader or a demolition derby, with nothing in the middle.
“Every situation is different and the tough part is to manage your speed,” Kenseth said. “Racing your whole life you go as fast as you can every lap and that’s what you do and you hope you can outrun the competition. This is just different.
“Yeah, it’s fun racing when you’ve got cars as fast as I’ve been driving and I’m really thankful to be driving them, but it’s also a frustrating type of race because you can’t really do anything talent-wise to make your car go faster. You can sit out there and ride around and be leading the whole race and then come down to one of those green-white-checkers and just really have no idea where you’re going to finish.”
Joey Logano was involved in two of the crashes, but he still found a way to finish fourth.
“I’d rather be lucky than good,” Logano said.
Ryan Newman wrecked on pit road early in the race, but he came back to finish fifth. Carl Edwards was sixth; Kasey Kahne crashed twice on the track and once on pit road, but still wound up seventh; and Brad Keselowski crashed late in the race and found a way to be eighth with most of his trunk missing.
“It’s just a matter of getting that luck on your side and being at the right place at the right time and having that opportunity,” Stewart said.
Even if he doesn’t understand it all.