Daytona Beach, FL – After starting from the rear of the field, Tony Stewart made a last-lap pass on Matt Kenseth for the lead and then survived a huge crash on the frontstretch to win Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion, posted the second fastest lap in qualifying on Friday, but his lap was disallowed after his car failed post-qualifying inspection for an illegal cooling hose. He started from the 42nd position.
During the final lap, Stewart, with pushing help from Kasey Kahne, drove his Chevrolet past the Roush Fenway Racing Fords of Kenseth and Greg Biffle on the backstretch. Kenseth, who won the Daytona 500 in February, had dominated most of this race by starting on the pole and leading 89 of 160 laps.
Kenseth and Biffle made one last attempt to catch Stewart, but Biffle's car wiggled coming out of turn four and then made contact with Kevin Harvick, which triggered the 15-car accident.
"We were going into (turn) three, and I couldn't tell what was in front of Harvick, but it looked like everybody was coming apart," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was of those involved in the incident and wound up finishing 15th. "Harvick went to the inside of the 16 (Biffle), and the 16 either came down or got shoved down into the nose of Harvick. I was getting shoved at the same time."
The race ended under caution, with Stewart crossing the finish line in first to claim his third win of the season and the 47th of his Cup career.
"I don't even remember what happened on that last lap," Stewart said. "I stayed in that second lane and just tried to get the 17 (Kenseth) and the 16 pulled apart. Once we got them pulled apart, it gave us a run on the outside. It's just a weird day."
His third win placed him in a tie with Brad Keselowski for most victories so far this season. Keselowski won last weekend's race at Kentucky Speedway.
Stewart has now won the 400-miler at Daytona four times but has yet to score a victory in the Daytona 500.
"Any time you win at Daytona, it's special," he noted.
Jeff Burton drove conservatively throughout the race before making his run to the front during the closing laps. Burton placed second, which was his best performance since his runner-up finish last October at Talladega Superspeedway, also a restrictor-plate track.
"Honestly, we had to kind of run around in the back tonight," Burton said. "Right now, if we get in the back of the race, we're going to overheat and not finish the race. Unfortunately, we kind of had to ride around, and that kept us out of some trouble, though."
Kenseth's bid to become the first driver to score a season-sweep at Daytona in 30 years came up short with a third-place run. Bobby Allison is the last driver to win both point races here in the same season, doing so in 1982.
"It was disappointing," Kenseth said. "I thought Greg and me had the best cars, but we didn't win. Once we got separated off of (turn) two (on the final lap) and I was under Tony, I think I should've of stayed with him and tried to race him at the finish."
Joey Logano finished fourth, followed by Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, and Carl Edwards. Kahne, Keselowski, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte completed the top-10. Biffle settled for a 21st-place run.
Just hours before the start of the race, NASCAR announced that Sprint Cup driver A.J. Allmendinger has been "temporarily suspended" from competition for violating the sanctioning body's substance abuse policy. Sam Hornish Jr. replaced Allmendinger in Penske Racing's No. 22 Dodge. Hornish Jr., a Nationwide Series regular, flew from Charlotte and arrived in Daytona Beach just in time to start the event. He cut a tire and wrecked at the halfway point before ending up with a 33rd-place finish.
"We sat there and had no idea what was going to happen from the time that I left Charlotte to when I got to Daytona," Hornish said. "All the way up until the plane took off, we didn't know if we were going to make the race in time. I said that I would tell the pilot to fly faster, but I'm pretty sure that he was going to have the throttle pinned the whole way down.
"I actually went and got a sandwich and tried to hydrate as much as I could. I think I drank 18 bottles of water, knowing how hot it was down here. It's been a long time since I've been in a Shell/Pennzoil (sponsored) car, since 2003 in the Indy car days."
The race ran caution free until Hornish's incident on lap 81. Then it turned into a crash-filled affair from there.
On lap 91, Kurt Busch got bumped while running in a tight pack and then made contact with 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, sending both drivers into the wall between turns three and four.
A seven-car wreck occurred on lap 125, with Jimmie Johnson getting tagged from behind and then spinning down the track before slamming hard into the inside retaining wall near the entrance to pit road. He finished 36th.
"I prepared for the worst," Johnson said in describing his impact with the wall. "It wasn't all that bad. Unfortunately, the car is destroyed. We just don't have the best luck on these plate tracks."
Johnson finished 42nd in the Daytona 500 when he was involved in a big wreck on the opening lap.
A 14-car crash took place with seven laps to go when Denny Hamlin lost control and spun around as the field headed into turn one, creating the melee. Hamlin had been suffering from back spasms throughout the week. He did not participate in Thursday's practice sessions and skipped out on Friday's Nationwide Series race here.
"I was fine, and I could have done with out (the back pain), that's for sure," Hamlin said. "I'll be 100 percent by next weekend (at New Hampshire Motor Speedway). I'm just looking forward to getting to some of these tracks where you can control your own adversity."
The fifth caution setup a two-lap shootout to the finish.