After a barn burner of a finish last weekend at Sonoma, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back to where it all began in Daytona for Saturday night’s running of the Coke Zero 400. With Tony Stewart returning to victory lane at Sonoma before rolling into Daytona, we’ll throw it back to the last time this happened with the running of the 2005 Pepsi 400 and Stewart finally scoring his first win at the famed superspeedway.
Throughout his career, a victory at Daytona had eluded him, but heading into the 2005 Pepsi 400, it looked like everything was coming up Stewart. He followed up his Sonoma win by sitting on the pole at Daytona and was joined by Scott Riggs on the front row.
Even though all of the drivers were raring to go at the start of the evening, they would all have to wait out a two hour rain delay that saw the race start under green/yellow conditions for the first 11 laps of the event. Once the green flag flew for good, it was all Stewart at the front of the field.
Stewart continued to lead through the first 35 laps before the first caution of the night broke out just as green flag pit stops were getting ready to start. As Jeff Gordon slowed to make his way down pit road, Jamie McMurray moved up the track to avoid Gordon, but outside polesitter Riggs could not get slowed down in time, setting off a nine car chain reaction. By the time all was said and done, Riggs, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Scott Wimmer, Casey Mears, Ken Schrader, Kurt Busch, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had suffered some damage in the wreck. Earnhardt was able to get his repaired and continue on in the race, while the majority of the others weren’t so lucky.
When the race went back green, it was Stewart that retained the lead and he would do so through lap 103. In the midst of green flag pit stops, a blown tire off of Bobby Hamilton, Jr’s No. 32 car brought out the caution for the fifth time of the night. While Stewart led the field down pit road, he relinquished the lead to the two Robert Yates Racing Cars of Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, who had pitted just prior to the caution and inherited the lead when Stewart and the other leaders pitted.
Restarting fifth at lap 107, Stewart was the furthest back in the field he had been all night long, but with the strength of his No. 20 car, Stewart powered right back to the race lead over Jarrett and Sadler at lap 110 and he would continue to do so until the penultimate caution of the night flew at lap 141.
Under the caution, teams and drivers employed a variety of pit strategies, with some drivers taking two tires and others electing to take four tires. Kasey Kahne and his No. 9 team was one of those who took just two tires on pit road, while Stewart elected for four fresh tires instead. As a result, Kahne would take over the race lead when the field went back to green.
Just like the last time he lost the lead, Stewart would not be denied as he used a daring four-wide pass with 16 laps to go to sweep right back to the lead over Kahne, Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson. As it looked like Stewart would be unbeatable, a multi-car crash broke out with 14 laps to go to bring out the final caution and give the field one more shot at Stewart.
The crash started when Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards got together and then collected Kevin Harvick. As is usually the case with restrictor plate tracks crashes, a total of seven cars were involved by the time all was said and done, with some of them even stuck in the infield grass as a result of the heavy rains that delayed the start of the race for hours.
Restarting with 10 laps to go, the rest of the field gave it their all to try and gang up on Stewart to try and unseat him from the lead, but despite their best efforts, Stewart was just too strong as he led the final 10 laps en route to his first restrictor plate race win and first win at Daytona, racking up a total of 151 laps at the front of the field. Since Stewart’s dominating 2005 win, no driver has led as many laps as he did in winning at Daytona.
To celebrate his first Daytona win, Stewart brought a little IndyCar flair to NASCAR as he would get out of his car at the start/finish line and climb the fence, just like Helio Castroneves had done to celebrate his Indianapolis 500 wins.
“I’m too damn fat to be climbing fences,” said Stewart. “I had to do it once. I always wanted to climb a fence and I always thought ‘they never go all the way to the top,’ so I wanted to go up over that. That’s tough at the top, but I like rock climbing. I finally got me a Daytona trophy here.”
“This thing was awesome. I told them take this thing back to the shop, put a cover on it and bring it back in February, so hopefully I won’t see this car for a couple of months yet. I remember about three or four years ago, a guy named Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that had a night just like tonight. When you have nights like this, you just guard it with everything you’ve got. I just quit worrying about everybody. I kept watching them and if they’d get a gap, I just kept going and not break my momentum and that really helped out tonight.”
Even though the race didn’t end until 1:42 am ET, the late hour didn’t faze Stewart one bit.
“Man, I’m nocturnal. I’m an old sprint car and midget car racer, and at this time of night, we’re usually just loading up on our trailers and headed for Denny’s or the Waffle House anyway.”