As cars were wrecking behind him, Tony Stewart drove the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to the win in the DRIVE4COPD 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. It was his fifth win in the last six February Daytona Nationwide races for Stewart.
Stewart's thoughts in victory lane, though, were more on the drivers involved in the last-lap wreck and fans in the grandstands.
Our thoughts are with the drivers and the fans in the grandstand.
"The important thing is what's going on the frontstretch," Stewart said. "As much as we want to celebrate right now, our thoughts are with the drivers and the fans in the grandstand. I saw it in the mirror, and it didn't look good."
As the field headed toward the checkered flag, Regan Smith in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet attempted to block the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford of Brad Keselowski. The two cars made contact and began a chain reaction incident that collected the No. 31 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet of Justin Allgaier, the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet of Brian Scott, the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Elliott Sadler and the No. 32 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet of Kyle Larson.
Larson's car received the worst of the damage as it got airborne. The front end of the car was sheared off by the catch fence and much of the front end of the car, including the engine, wound up on the fan side of the catch fence. Medical personnel were sent into the grandstands to attend to injured fans. All drivers, including Larson, walked away from the incident.
"He felt like that's (blocking) what he had to do, and that's his right," Keselowski said.
The four-car team of Joe Gibbs Racing -- the No. 11 Toyota of Sadler, the No. 18 Toyota of Matt Kenseth, the No. 20 Toyota of Brian Vickers and the No. 5 4 Toyota of Kyle Busch -- dominated throughout the event, especially early on, with all four running at our near the front.
But by the closing stages of the race, Kenseth was the only JGR driver to not experience some kind of issue, mostly due to overheating. Sadler was the first of the four to have problems but was able to recover to run toward the front and lead for a time toward the end of the race.
Busch wasn't so lucky. His No. 54 overheated to the point of engine damage, ending his race with 21 laps to go. By that time, Vickers was already two laps down because of his overheating issue.
"Last year, we ran our cars at 260 (degrees) or 270 all day and today I was about 250 to 260 so I thought being less I was going to be okay and not hurt anything," Busch said. "Never really thought I pushed too much water out, but there at the end just started to heat up, the oil temperature got hot and the thing never wanted to cool back down."
The race restarted with two laps remaining with Smith and Stewart on the front row and Keselowski and the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford of Sam Hornish Jr. behind them in the second row. Hornish pushed Stewart out to the lead and win, while Smith and Keselowski paired up for a two-car tandem with, eventually, disastrous results.
“The only thing I saw was coming to the white the 33 and I got separated and got back together," Hornish said. "I pushed him up there as far as I could. It took some dicey moves and I guess the 22 and 7 got tangled up there. I tried to get off the back of the 33 so I didn’t push him into anything and as soon as I got clean air I was right in the back of the 22, so it’s unfortunate that we did get a little bit torn up, but I guess it was a second-place finish. I’ll take that."
Hornish finished second. Alex Bowman finished third in the No. 99 RAB Racing Toyota, Earnhardt was fourth, and Parker Kligerman was fifth in the No. 77 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.