Top drivers in the news at Daytona

Call it the Daytona Shuffle.

The best-laid plans on restrictor-plate tracks can unravel in an instant. That happened in the final lap of Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 when cars and sheet metal stretched across the tri-oval as Tony Stewart took the checkered flag.

Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte said it best as he consoled Dale Earnhardt Jr., who appeared destined for his 14th top-10 finish of the season but settled for 15th.

“That’s not your fault,” Letarte said as fireworks erupted while the No. 88 Chevrolet sat mangled on the fronstretch of Daytona International Speedway. “That’s speedway racing at its finest. All right bud, you finished 15th. Good job. Glad you’re all right. We’ll move on to Loudon. Can’t wait to get there.”

Junior was one of the lucky ones. He posted a top-15 finish. Other drivers vying for Chase for the Sprint Cup berths weren’t nearly as lucky, though no one broke into or fell out of the top 10, the points spread has changed for both those inside the field and those trying to break into it.

Teammate Jimmie Johnson plowed into the SAFER barrier leading to pit road with an assist from Michael Waltrip. Greg Biffle took another tumble in the points after he broke away from teammate Matt Kenseth on the last lap. Biffle told the team after the race, “I’ll have to watch the replay. I don’t know what happened there.”

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were also collected on the fifth caution. Busch remains outside of a locked-in top-10 position. Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer both sustained damage with recent winner Bowyer now teetering in 10th. Kevin Harvick, who was on baby watch, never needed a substitute driver on Saturday night. His evening still ended a lap early after the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet was collected in the final skirmish and scored 23rd.

“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,” said Stewart, who regained the four spots he lost at Kentucky. Now, with all that happened, Kenseth’s 25-point advantage over Earnhardt is the greatest for anyone in first place all season.

It almost seemed fitting that once Junior climbed from his car, he lowered the hood on the No. 88 Chevrolet before abandoning the wreckage on the frontstretch. He brushed off what he couldn’t control and took Letarte’s advice to “move on to Loudon” – so will we.

Here are 10 things to watch leading into New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

1. Fantasy Island

It’s that time of year for the unofficial NASCAR/owner/driver summit in Key West where the yachting set will discuss the current state of the sport. Sources say representatives from Goodyear will be in attendance. It should be interesting what comes out of those talks in the next few weeks. Hopefully, it’s more substantial than glass dashboards.

2. Kenseth can

News of Matt Kenseth’s departure from Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end doesn’t appear to have had an effect on the team. Kenseth’s third-place finish allowed him to extend his lead to 25 points over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the standings. Considering his tight relationship with crew chief Jimmy Fennig and his long-time bond with Roush general manager Robbie Reiser, don’t expect Kenseth’s advantage to change any time soon. But a win or two before the Chase would certainly solidify his quest for a second Cup title.

3. Not Dodging the question

Michael Andretti will start interviewing NASCAR Cup drivers this week – so line up the usual suspects. Hearing Steve Hmiel could be part of the equation at the campus formerly known as Evernham Motorsports. But will Dodge be a player or will Andretti explore other options?

4. Meet the old boss

From Ryan Newman’s comments at Daytona, he appears to be close to extending his tenure with bossman Tony Stewart. “Just talkin’ through it, workin’ through it at Stewart-Haas,” Newman said. “I’m happy where I’m at and we’re just focused on trying to put everything together so that we can keep going and plugging away.” Although Newman posted his first top five on Saturday night since his win at Martinsville Speedway in April, he fell to 15th in the points standings.

5. Wild cards

This contest might be the most compelling of all over the next eight races. Kyle Busch is 56 points out of the Chase Zone but has just a seven-point lead over teammate Joey Logano, who is second in the wild-card standings. Ryan Newman is one point behind Logano. Kasey Kahne is fourth on the list – just two points behind Newman. A second win would lock in any of these drivers. Carl Edwards, however, will need a win or have to make up the 31 points standing between him and 10th place, currently held by Clint Bowyer.

6. Ah, July

July 1 used to be the date when the top teams had their sponsors and drivers lined up for the following year. That was in a strong economy. Now organizations are still scrambling to put deals in place for even some of the best teams and drivers. With Matt Kenseth looking like a lock for the No. 20 team at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano is currently being shopped for Cup rides. Sources say JGR has offered the 22-year-old a full-time Nationwide Series opportunity but not surprisingly, the kid wants to remain in Cup. Performances such as his win at Pocono and fourth-place finish at Daytona will not only enhance his chances for making the Chase – he’s 69 points out of the top 10, but now in position for the second wild card – but strengthen his resume for potential suitors.

7. He works hard for the money

The Cup cars of the six start-and-park teams were safe and sound in the garage – or on their transporters before the wrecking began on the racetrack. It seems absolutely ridiculous that these teams should collect relatively the same amount of money for a few exhibition laps as those that attempt to go the distance – especially at a track such as Daytona –  only to get caught up in a wreck with absolutely nothing to show for the effort.

8. Just curious

Denny Hamlin signed a contract extension before the race at Kentucky Speedway. The following week, Hamlin’s back wasn’t healthy enough to practice in the car at Daytona. Hamlin said his back issues, which manifested in 2008, were exacerbated by the rough surface at Kentucky. Hamlin said prior to Saturday’s race, "As far as insuring a problem like this, we have stuff in place to help out when stuff like this happens." And while he believes his back will be better come Loudon, Hamlin took some sizeable hits on Saturday, none worse than during the fifth caution on Lap 154 when he was slammed on the right-side door. Stay tuned.

9. Testing, testing

All four manufacturers had their submission cars in the wind tunnel on Monday and Tuesday in what was expected to be the final test on the panels before sheet metal is distributed to the teams. Apparently, not all the cars reached the target numbers for downforce and drag. NASCAR hopes to have all four manufacturers back to the wind tunnel in the next two weeks to zero in on a few target areas. “We’re close,” said NASCAR template manager Billy Berkheimer. “We’re really close. But (NASCAR and the manufacturers) collectively decided to do it one more time. Everybody is pretty happy with the progress.”

10. A new addition

Congratulations to Kevin and DeLana Harvick on the arrival of Keelan Paul Harvick on Sunday. It will be interesting to see how fatherhood changes Happy in the future.