DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart continued his domination of the Nationwide Series season opener, overcoming a late pit stop to fix a flat tire to catch Clint Bowyer at the finish line of Daytona International Speedway.
It was the fourth consecutive victory for Stewart in the opener for NASCAR’s second-tier series, and he’s won this event in six of the past seven seasons.
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But his chances seemed slim when he had to pit from second place to change a flat right rear tire during a late caution. It dropped him to 11th on the restart, with six laps to go, and he hooked up with Landon Cassill to charge his way through the field.
Bowyer, the pole-sitter, led the field with Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushing him around the track. Bowyer and Earnhardt took off in a two-car pack, with Stewart and Cassill hooked up, and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano paired. The three two-car packs put on a thrilling show up to the final lap, when the Busch-Logano tandem ended with Busch hitting the outside wall and spinning down the track.
Bowyer had to brace for Earnhardt’s eventual attempt to pass, and he was busy blocking the move when Stewart and Cassill came blazing along the outside.
Stewart nipped him by .007 seconds, the closest finish in Nationwide Series history at Daytona.
“We just got a great run. We had a good pusher with Landon Cassill, able to get the two of us up there,” Stewart said. “We had a lot of confidence going into the last stretch.”
And he’s got a lot of confidence heading into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, a race he’s never won in 12 previous career starts.
“This is a great way to lead into (the 500),” he said. “Nothing better than going back to the motorhome and know you have a shot to do it again.”
Bowyer was second to give Kevin Harvick Inc. a sweep of the top two spots, and owner Harvick celebrated atop a pit box.
Cassill finished third and became the series points leader. He doesn’t have a ride lined up for next week, though.
“I’m the points leader? I’m sorry, I don’t have a ride next week, so I’m going to bask in this for about seven days,” he said.
Earnhardt, trying to win on the 17th anniversary of his father’s seventh and final Nationwide win at Daytona, finished fourth. Friday marked the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“I would have liked to have won the race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was helping Clint there at the end and Tony on the outside had a great run. They took away my opportunity to try to pass Clint by myself. Should have just pushed Clint there at the end to the win. I was just trying to see what I could do, if I could win it somehow. But it didn’t work out.”