Tony Stewart celebrates in victory lane after winning the Coke Zero 400… (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images )
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — — Tony Stewart laughed facetiously after his car got bumped back to the rear of the field following a failed inspection for Saturday's restrictor-plate scrum at Daytona International Speedway.
"So my reward is I get a Coke Zero for this?" Stewart joked Friday night.
The following evening, Stewart had the last laugh as he came from 42nd place to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400.
Stewart ducked in front of the dominant Ford tag-team of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle to emerge as the winner for the third time this season. Stewart now has 18 victories at Daytona, second only to the late Dale Earnhardt.
After a wreck with nine laps to go involving 14 cars, Stewart won a frantic two-lap sprint, thanks to a push from Kasey Kahne with a lap to go. After Stewart slid by the Roush teammates, Biffle got collected in a huge wreck involving 15 cars. Stewart won as cars were flying all over the track.
"I don't even remember that last lap," Stewart said. "Just a weird day."
Jeff Burton was second, followed by Kenseth.
"I just got turned down in front of the 29 [Kevin Harvick]," Biffle said. "That's the way it goes."
Kenseth won the Daytona 500 in February, with an assist from Roush teammate Biffle. But Kenseth and Biffle got slightly separated on the last lap Saturday, allowing Stewart to duck by both cars.
"I'm happy to get third, but on the other hand I'm incredibly disappointed because I feel my team deserved to be down there pulling the hardware," Kenseth said. "I feel like I let them down."
The first big wreck involved seven drivers, including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and finally shook things up in a race that had been more of a monotonous drone. Up until then, the return of big-pack restrictor-plate racing for the second time this season wasn't exactly a tale of suspense. More like a long, boring novel.
The first caution didn't come until after the race was more than half over, unusual for the usual scrum of bumper cars at Daytona International Speedway. But the three big wrecks at the end changed those dynamics.
Up until then, all the early drama was pre-race.
A.J. Allmendinger, driving for Roger Penske, got busted by NASCAR after failing a routine drug test. Even though the test was last week, NASCAR officials announced a "temporary" suspension less than two hours before the race was set to start, sending the Penske gang scrambling to find a replacement.
They flew in Penske Nationwide driver Sam Hornish from Charlotte, N.C., in a private plane. He landed at Daytona Beach Airport, next to the track, at 7:27 p.m., and managed to scramble into the seat 23 minutes later.
Kenny Wallace was prepared to jump into the seat had Hornish not arrived in time.
"Glad I was able to come down here for you guys," Hornish said via radio a few laps into the race. "Little bit of a different day for me."
Yes it was. The crew had to make major adjustments on the fly, particularly because Hornish is six inches taller than Allmendinger.
It became a longer night for Penske Racing when Hornish's car lost control along the backstretch on Lap 85, bringing out the first caution of the night.
That led to the first "big one" of the night — a chain reaction involving Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kahne and Brad Keselowski's cars along pit road. Keselowski's car took the brunt of the damage, but the fortunate thing was that his pit crew was able to scramble out of the way of Newman's car.
"The 24 [Gordon] just didn't give us any room," Newman said. "We came together and I got the rough end of the deal."