Two factors were indisputable when the NASCAR Nationwide Series season opened in February with the DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday: Tony Stewart is almost impossible to beat in a Nationwide car at Daytona, and Danica Patrick draws a staggering amount of attention.
Stewart prevailed at Daytona in the thrilling season opener, dodging a plethora of wrecks, including one that sent fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a barrel roll, to win his fifth Daytona NNS race in his last six attempts. And those five victories have come for three different owners, including Kevin Harvick Inc. (2010), Hendrick Motorsports (2009) and Joe Gibbs (2008).
Stewart took the lead on Lap 90 and just two circuits later, the day’s moment of high-drama occurred. Earnhardt was in third place when Carl Edwards tapped Brad Keselowski moving the No. 22 Dodge into Earnhardt’s No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. Earnhardt’s car turned sharply right and went head on into the backstretch wall, flipping over. While upside down, Earnhardt’s car was hit by the onrushing Kyle Busch and Brendan Gaughan, neither of whom had anywhere to go.
“We had a lot of fun today,” said Earnhardt. “But that was expensive right there, so I don’t know. We’ll have to go back and balance our books after this one. It’s been a rough day for JR Motorsports.”
What Earnhardt was referring to was the fact that Patrick, in a second JR Motorsports car, crashed out earlier in the race in a 10-car crash on the frontstretch on Lap 68. The wreck began when Josh Wise was tapped from behind by Colin Braun exiting Turn 4.
The collision happened in front of Patrick, who nearly made it through the melee, but couldn’t avoid the carnage. Patrick, who drew a huge media crush around her all throughout Speedweeks, officially was credited with a 35th-place finish.
“I don’t doubt there are going to be hard days, just like in IndyCar, where you just want to park it,” said Patrick. “You’re just saving your life every corner. But, all in all, these are really fun cars to drive. I love the racing. I love there’s passing. I love there’s side-by-side. Not only is it fun for the drivers, but it’s fun for the fans, too.”
But the day belonged to Stewart, who won his 15th race at the fabled 2.5-mile superspeedway, tying him with Cale Yarborough for third all-time behind only the late Dale Earnhardt (34 Daytona victories) and Bobby Allison (16).
“Kevin and Delana have always given us great race cars,” said Stewart. “So from that standpoint, I’m not surprised (to win). I’m just glad we’re here again.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.