NASCAR

The Hot Pass: Stewart not celebrating wild win

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

The postrace fireworks behind Victory Lane could not compare to the sparks Tony Stewart ignited on the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 before taking the checkered flag for the third time at Daytona International Speedway. Stewart spent a race-high 86 laps at the point on Saturday night, but he couldn't hold off a charge by Kyle Busch in the final two laps. Busch looked to the outside line entering Turn 3 and with a strong run off the banking, passed Stewart coming out of the corner. Stewart pulled up tight to Busch's bumper and followed him around for the final circuit.
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As Busch darted left and right to block his position, Stewart clipped the back end of the No. 18 Toyota, setting off a chain reaction behind him as he cruised to the finish. "That's not the way I wanted to do it, but that's as far as I wanted to go," Stewart said on the radio after taking the checkered flag. Busch's mangled machine careened to a stop at the end of pit road. Kasey Kahne, who rammed into Busch's out-of-control car, and Joey Logano also collected heavy damage in the last-lap incident. Busch was forced to walk past the No. 14 team's pit and made it halfway up pit road before he was restrained from taking a detour to Victory Lane. A safety vehicle picked Busch up and carried him to the infield care center. Busch, who led just one lap and was scored 14th at the finish, declined comment following the race. For the majority of the last 30 laps, Stewart led a four-car breakaway with Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin swapping spots. On the final two cautions, Stewart elected to take the inside lane on the restarts to thwart Busch and Hamlin from ganging up behind him. But with four laps remaining in the race, Stewart was intent at preserving the point. On the final lap, it was every racer for himself. Stewart, however, was clear that dumping a fellow driver — particularly a former teammate who he drafted with for the latter part of the race — was not how he wanted to win despite the approving roar from the fans.
"If we didn't win the race, we didn't earn it. But I don't want any part of winning a race because a guy got wrecked. I don't think we did anything wrong. He's protecting his position — which is what he has to do as a driver. He can't just sit there and let us make a move like that and not try to defend it. "But it puts him, it puts us, it puts Kasey Kahne behind him in a bad position where it drove Kyle's car all the way up to Kasey's windshield." Johnson and Hamlin, who skirted the melee to finish second and third, respectively, had a front-row seat for the scintillating but scary finish. Johnson believes the finish is simply a product of restrictor-plate racing. "There is nothing to do to stop it," Johnson said. "If you think about the position that the sport is in, one race, it's boring, there's no racing, there's no excitement. And then a couple races there's an exciting finish and we're worried about the exciting finish. It's plate racing. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't. "These cars punch a big hole of air, and the second-place guy can sometimes get a run. It's not strong enough to where the leader knows, I can't block it, it's just a slow run that they get, so the leader over time we've all understood that you can be really aggressive blocking. And that time it just didn't work for the 18." Stewart appeared almost remorseful following the race. Despite scoring his 35th career win, earning Stewart-Haas Racing its second victory of the season and blowing out his points lead to 180 markers over second-place Jeff Gordon, it was not the way Smoke wanted to win. "It doesn't matter who it is, you don't want a race to be decided like that," Stewart said. "It's hard work to get these cars to the racetrack and it's just a bad situation. It's not bad because we're put in a bad situation. "I just don't feel as much gratification from winning this race as I probably should because I don't like the way the outcome happened."

Underdog of the day

Elliott Sadler hasn't had the best season at Richard Petty Motorsports. But Sadler's 10th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway was his second top 10 in two weeks and his third of the season. Sadler finished fifth in the February Daytona race.

Remember this

The fourth caution on Lap 78 was a game-changer. Not only did an on-track incident started by Kasey Kahne and David Stremme take out 13 cars before the halfway point of the race, the wreck knocked out Daytona favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and severely damaged the No. 24 car of Jeff Gordon, the active drivers with the most wins at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Earnhardt was fighting an ill-handling car for most of the evening, but with the threat of rain had recently pushed his car up into the top 15 when the wreck occurred. The wreck knocked the upper A-frame off the chassis and the No. 88 Chevrolet was done for the evening. Gordon's team made four additional pit stops for repairs during that caution and the following yellow-flag period. That enabled Gordon to soldier on throughout the event on the lead lap but he posted a miserable 28th-place finish and lost 111 points to championship leader Stewart. The winner in the wreck was Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya raced among the top 10 in the beginning of the 400 but was caught in the tussle between Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth in an altercation on Lap 13. As the beneficiary following the fourth caution, JPM was able to work his way back up into the top five despite losing a lap and inevitably finished ninth for his eighth top 10 of the season.

What's the point?

After last season's July Daytona event, Kyle Busch led the standings by a 182-point margin over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tony Stewart currently leads Jeff Gordon by 180 points. Following Saturday night's race, the top 10 drivers did not change position. The big gainers were Juan Pablo Montoya, who moved from the 12th position to 11th, and Kasey Kahne, who climbed back in the Chase Zone for the first time since April. Mark Martin ended up in the garage following his accident on Lap 13, but returned to competition and finished 38th. However, he lost two positions in the championship and fell back out of the top 12 for the second time this season. With eight races remaining before the Chase, 135 points separate 16th-place Clint Bowyer from Kahne, followed by Jeff Burton (105), David Reutimann (74) and Martin (65).

Watercooler talk

  • Marcos Ambrose has proved his proficiency on road courses, but superspeedways are another story ... until now. Despite his fourth-place finish at Talladega this spring, few would have expected Ambrose to be a player at Daytona, the other restrictor-plate track on the circuit. With a sixth-place finish in just his second Cup start at Daytona, few will doubt his drafting ability in the future.
  • Regan Smith scored a season-high 12th-place finish at Daytona. Smith continued his perfect record of running at the finish for all 51 of his Cup starts. Despite running a limited schedule with Furniture Row Racing, Smith's consistency should be a deal maker for any potential owner/sponsor.
  • Aric Almirola was hanging out at the No. 42 transporter with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing president Steve "Jake" Lauletta. If I had to bet, Almirola will be back in the No. 8 Chevrolet by the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. The race pays exceptionally well and apparently EGR is close to securing sponsorship.

    Say what?

    "I'm not pointing any fingers at Tony (Stewart). He was trying to win the race, Kyle (Busch) was trying block him for the win and we got turned around."
    —Steve Addington, crew chief for Busch and the No. 18 team.
  • Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano

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