It’s good to have friends — especially in a race in which it takes a partner to take the checkered flag.
Matt Kenseth knows that. So does Greg Biffle. But just how far should that friendship go? Not, apparently, all the way to victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ most prestigious race. At least not when you hear Biffle talk about it in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
Shortly after midnight, Kenseth stormed around the track, pacing the field in the rain-delayed Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Biffle, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, was tucked safely on his bumper, so Kenseth was able to pull away from the field and stay there.
The two tore through the final laps, setting up a finish in which it looked like the teammates would challenge for the win. Earlier in the week, it looked as if the driver in the lead was at the mercy of the one who had helped him get there on the final lap.
Kyle Busch slipped past Tony Stewart at the line to win the Budweiser Shootout.
Biffle led his Gatorade Duel until the final laps, when Kenseth whipped around him — with a little help.
Surely it was Biffle’s turn?
Nope. No one passed Kenseth. He held his lead through a pair of final restarts, held it to the white flag, held it through Turn 4 and took the checkered flag. He won his second Daytona 500, finishing ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton.
“To win the (qualifying race) and then to win the 500, as well, is certainly a lot more than I would have expected or really thought we were going to do,” Kenseth said. “So it’s always special to win races. It’s really hard to win these races. The older you get and the more you race, you realize how hard it is, and you really try to enjoy all those moments.”
How did it happen, though?
When Earnhardt continually pushed against Biffle’s bumper, it looked as if Biffle was just being a loyal teammate by refusing to swing out and lead Earnhardt Jr. into the fray.
And when Biffle wasn’t beside Kenseth tearing toward the finish line on the final lap, it once more looked like he was playing a loyal role in keeping Roush Fenway at the front.
Turns out, that wasn’t exactly the case.
In a race marked by a series of hard crashes and a horrifying incident in which Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a track jet dryer truck under caution, Kenseth was the class of the field. On a day when NASCAR worked to dry the track and squeeze the race in, when a 2-hour, 5-minute red flag halted the action, a track had to be repaired, a number of contenders ended the race early and the Daytona 500 ran on a Monday for the first time ever, Kenseth topped them all.
And Biffle just couldn’t do anything about it.
“Once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you,” Kenseth said. “My car was one of the faster cars, so it was harder for some of the cars to push you and stay locked onto you. . . . We had enough speed once we took the white, I felt sort of okay about it, but I still thought they were going to get a run and pass me. By the time I got to (Turn) 3, . . . (I) could see they couldn’t get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”
Earnhardt Jr. saw it the same way.
“I know that they’re teammates, but his group of guys that specifically work on that car or travel down here to pit the car during the race, his crew chief, (Biffle) himself, they work way too hard to decide to run second in a scenario like that,” Earnhardt said.
“. . . If he had an opportunity to get around Matt and had a chance to win the Daytona 500, he would have took it immediately. He’s trying to do what he could do. If I were him, I can’t imagine what his game plan was in his head. But if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the No. 88 for the dogs. But that didn’t work out.”
Earnhardt saw Biffle get a run on the backstretch, and Kenseth effectively block it. He loomed on Biffle’s bumper, trying not only to help push him to the front, but to be in position to then swing past him and take the win himself.
They just couldn’t make it happen, a fact that seemed to baffle Biffle.
“I still am a little blown away by . . . the end of the race that we weren’t able to push up to the back of the 17 car (of Kenseth),” he said. “I was kind of surprised by that.”
It was one of many baffling and bizarre developments in the race. First, the Daytona 500 was pushed to Monday night for the first time in its 54th annual running. Rain disrupted attempts to run it Sunday at all, or again at the planned midday Monday time.
Then the crashes common to a restrictor-plate race erupted, but at a faster-than-normal pace. And then there was the horrifying incident with the safety equipment. Montoya’s car had a parts failure shortly after a pit stop, and he spun and slammed into a jet dryer truck, igniting a horrifying fireball. Montoya climbed from his destroyed and flaming car as jet fuel caught fire as it poured across the track.
“It burned the helmet and everything,” he said. “It’s not where you want to finish the Daytona 500.”
The race was red-flagged for more than two hours as track officials first put out the fire, then surveyed the damage caused and worked to repair the track surface. The track worker involved was transported to the hospital and was resting comfortably Monday night.
Earlier, six of the drivers who had waited an extra day-and-a-half for the race to kick off found themselves in trouble less than two laps into the race.
Elliott Sadler tapped Jimmie Johnson and sent his car slamming into the outer wall. As the pack of drivers barreling down on him tried to evade his car, several began spinning across the track before David Ragan slammed into Johnson’s Chevrolet.
Danica Patrick, making her NASCAR Sprint Cup debut, was caught up in a crash for the third time during Speedweeks at Daytona. Bayne and Phoenix Racing’s Kurt Busch were also involved in the crash.
All the drivers watched as their cars were in the garage undergoing repairs for several laps, excepting Ragan and Johnson, who were done for the night.
“It is ridiculous to sit around this long for the Daytona 500 and on the very first lap for someone to be driving as reckless as whoever caused that; someone had to cause it,” Ragan said. “. . . I can’t wait to see who was the bonehead that did that.”
Johnson took a hard hit but said that he was OK after the race.
“I’m just really, really bummed to start the season this way,” Johnson said.
So was Biffle, who wondered just how the Daytona 500 didn’t go his way. He expected to be able to make a run at his teammate once Earnhardt Jr. got back on his bumper. It simply didn’t happen for him.
In the end, he was left to wonder and second-guess — and watch his teammate win his second Daytona 500.
“The only thing I could have done is got real straight down the backstretch and pushed the brake pedal down pretty hard, and kept going straight and slowed both of our cars down a fair amount and then let him make a run at Matt around (Turns) 3 and 4, and then we could have moved up beside him coming off the corner, and then Junior and I would have had to dice it out to the line,” Biffle said.
“That’s probably what I should have done, is just anchored down the brakes down the back stretch and put distance in between us, Matt and I, is the only way we probably would have got a run at him. But I thought for sure I didn’t need to do that.”