Sunday at Daytona one 'Big One' wasn't enough
July 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One car rolling over, one car hopping into the air, one three-time champion angry at his former protégé -- it was a crazy and unpredictable Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, and not just because of the weather.
Track officials may have fired off their huge July 4 weekend fireworks show Saturday night after the Coke Zero 400 was postponed by rain, but there were plenty of blow-ups in Sunday's rescheduled event, and all of them were on the asphalt. Frenzied competition at the front of the pack resulted in a 16-car melee early on, which only served as an appetizer to the massive 26-car pileup that reshuffled the field before Aric Almirola's rain-shortened victory.
Those were the only two caution periods for incidents on the track Sunday, and they were both doozies, combining to make a long weekend seem even longer, even though the event ultimately ended 48 laps short of the finish.
"It's the product of being here an extra day, kind of racing the rain," said Ryan Newman, who was caught up in the second big wreck and finished 24th. "A lot of guys are racing for a win pulling out crazy stuff. Just the product of the way the cars race together. It is what it is. It's really not much fun."
The first pileup left Tony Stewart seething at Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who once drove a sprint car for the three-time champion. The second sent Jamie McMurray's car bounding up into the air, and Kyle Busch's vehicle over on its hood. "Oh, just having a good ol' time over here," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver radioed to his crew, as he hung upside down awaiting a crew to flip him over.
What the heck was going on? Blame a potent combination of a hot race track, cars set up for the nighttime, and everyone racing with the knowledge that more rain was in the forecast.
"I think most everyone has been pushing the button really from Lap 1, but the tires and the cars are not handling as well being that the temperatures are hotter, and you can see a lot of cars moving around," said Denny Hamlin, who was involved in the second crash but still finished sixth. "Just some people have been a little overzealous and caused some big wrecks simply because you can't control your car when it gets this hot, so you've got to allow for that. As a driver you've got to feel that edge and know where you need to be and make it to the finish."
Clearly, not everyone did. The wreckage began in earnest just 20 laps into the event, when Stenhouse apparently got loose and clipped Stewart, sparking chaos behind them. "It looked like the No. 17 got squirrelly up there and then they all started wrecking," said Kevin Harvick, who went sliding through the grass and finished 39th as a result. Stewart's comments were much more pointed.
"I guess it was just Stenhouse being an idiot," Stewart said. "It didn't make much sense when we're coming to (a competition) caution. We're like a quarter of a lap from getting to the caution, and he does something stupid. It tore up a lot of people's cars and a lot of people's days. (We) get here on Wednesday night and sit here all day and run 19 and three-quarter laps and get wrecked by somebody who's doing something stupid."
He wasn't finished. "Every week, it's something kind of with him," added Stewart, who is actually good friends with Stenhouse, and owns the car driven by Stenhouse's girlfriend, Danica Patrick. "I love him like a little brother, but it makes me nervous to be around him on the race track."
Stenhouse conceded his car broke loose, but said he initially saved the vehicle before being hit by someone else. "We had the outside lane working there and it seemed like some of the guys were struggling on the bottom and the middle, and we got a little loose on the top," he said. "I save it, and everything was good and then all of a sudden we got hit in the left rear. I am not real sure what happened."
Regardless, the incident impacted a number of good cars. Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost a lap for repairs, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth fell well back, and Jimmie Johnson was finished for the day. "Those guys have been down here for four days in this heat, working on the car," the six-time series champ said of his crew, "not to mention all the time and effort put into this. To go 15 or 20 laps is just a really big bummer."
Johnson's teammate, Jeff Gordon, posted on Twitter that he accepted blame for the first wreck and apologized to everyone involved in what he called a crazy race.
It was only the beginning. After two cautions for debris, the mother of all "Big Ones" unfolded on Lap 98 when Greg Biffle got into Kasey Kahne on the backstretch, and cars started scattering as if an anthill had been kicked over. Joey Logano, who had once been running third, was among the primary casualties. So was McMurray, who had led 11 laps -- until his car was turned sideways and hopped into the air, over the hood of Newman's vehicle, before landing on all four wheels.
"I will tell you, I have never had a car that's (been) off the ground," McMurray said, "and it's a crazy feeling, and it's a helpless feeling to have the car do that. I was really lucky that it set back down."
Biffle said he got a big push from traffic from David Ragan, just as Kahne closed a hole in the middle of traffic. "We weren't lined up. He moved down for some reason when he hit (Casey Mears) or something. It was just a chain reaction," Biffle said. But the driver who got the worst of it was Busch, who spun down to the bottom of the race track, was hit by Cole Whitt and then slowly rolled over, left marooned upside down in his vehicle until emergency workers could arrive.
"It was OK. Just felt like a slow carnival ride," Busch called it. "... I just wish it would have stayed straight. If it would have stayed straight, I might have had an opportunity to get through there and not be too banged up. But, then I just got T-boned there at the end and it just kind of toppled me over."
Sunday at Daytona, Busch had plenty of company. Then there was the opposite end of the spectrum -- those like runner-up Brian Vickers, who was able to successfully pick his way around the melee. "As soon as I saw a hole, I just downshifted and floored it and hoped for the best, and we got really lucky," he said. "I saw some cars go by us in both directions and over the top of our hood. It was a mess. Fortunately, we were able to get through."
Sunday at Daytona, that was half the battle.