In what has become an all too regular occurence at the world center of racing, Mother Nature once again had her way with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Sunday, causing nearly a four-hour rain delay and pushing the start of the 400-mile race to nearly midnight. Despite the race start being delayed three hours, 34 minutes due to rain – the green flag waved at 11:42 p.m. Sunday – virtually all of the fans in attendance waited out the weather, taking advantage of new fan-friendly amenities that are part of the ongoing DAYTONA Rising renovation.
It wasn’t her first appearance at the track for the weekend, however, as inclement weather entered the equation early at Daytona when lightning and light rain caused the cancellation of Sprint Cup Series qualifying on Saturday afternoon, meaning that the field for the Coke Zero 400 was set according to the practice speeds from the first practice. With that, Dale Earnhardt Jr. started on the pole, and almost never looked back, leading a race-high 96 laps en route to the 16th Daytona International Speedway victory of his career.
Just three laps into the 160-lap event, drivers found themselves exercising evasive maneuvers when a crash that involved nine cars, including the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford driven by this year’s DAYTONA 500 champion Joey Logano. Logano’s hopes for a season sweep at Daytona vanished soon afterward, as consecutive pit stops to repair damage resulted in two penalties – both for having too many crewmen over the wall.
From there, is was smooth sailing until almost halfway, when Casey Mears, who had looked strong until the lap 57 restart, reported to crew chief Bootie Barker that the GEICO Chevy's engine shut off, causing him to lose power and free-fall through the field, bottoming out in the 35th position.
Mears was able to regain power, but the situation left the team searching for a solution. Fortunately, another caution flag slowed the field immediately, allowing Mears the opportunity to bring his car to the attention of the Germain Racing pit crew. After checking all connections, everything appeared to be in working order as the race returned to green on lap 63. The problem would persist and it would later be determined that there was a bad sensor in the braking system that caused the car to believe the throttle was stuck which caused it to shut off whenever Mears engaged the brakes.
The first big crash on lap 105 brought out the yellow flag and provided the opportunity for the GEICO pit crew to fix the braking sensor issue. They took swift action and rectified the problem without losing a lap to the field.
When the green flag once again turned the Sprint Cup Series loose with just 46 laps left in the advertised distance, the field was once again racing at break neck speed, averaging just under 200 MPH.
Earnhardt, driving the No. 88 Nationwide Stars and Stripes Chevrolet, dominated much of the race, leading 40 of the race’s first 80 laps. He took the checkered flag ahead of runner-up Jimmie Johnson and third-place Denny Hamlin – and also ahead of a multi-car incident that began with Hamlin’s car turning sideways as it was crossing the line. It was the second Coke Zero 400 victory for Earnhardt, following up on his 2001 triumph.
A tightly packed sprint to the finish initially was set up by a late-race spin by David Ragan, after which the race was restarted on Lap 152 of the 160-lap event. But then, another set-up: a frontstretch spin by Sam Hornish Jr. with six laps remaining. The final yellow flag of the evening waved over the field with just five laps remaining, leaving just enough time for an exciting green-white-checkered finish.
Earnhardt then alternated between pulling away and blocking Johnson to earn his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season. He also won at Talladega Superspeedway in May.
On the white flag lap, a historic crash saw Mears and his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet being shoved hard into the outside wall, causing heavy damage to his car as he crossed the finish line and scored an 11th place finish. It was the beginning of a dramatic crash just passed the start/finish line that started when Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick made contact. The result was the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon going airborne, just over the top of Mears and his GEICO Chevy, into the catchfence in front of a grandstand full of fans. Crews from multiple race teams, including Germain Racing, quickly darted onto the racetrack to tend to Dillon, who later was able to walk away from the frightening incident that horrified everyone on hand.
In the garage after the race, Mears was quick to offer praise for his GEICO Racing team who worked hard all night to keep him in contention.
"All you can ask for is to have a shot at the end and we had that with a really fast racecar. The guys on this Germain Racing team worked hard all night and did a great job of getting the brake issue resolved without us losing a lap, which was significant in me being able to get the GEICO Chevy back up front and have a chance there at the end," Mears said as he surveyed his heavily damaged racecar. "It's amazing that we can make it through the entire race unscathed and then get tore up as we're crossing the finish line. It was a relief to learn that there were no serious injuries among the fans in the grandstand. We're all glad that Austin is okay and I'm proud of our Germain guys for getting out there to check on him so quickly. In NASCAR, we all look after each other and it's comforting to know when something bad happens that everyone will be there for you."
Next up for the series is a trip to the Bluegrass state. The race weekend will kick-off with a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series test at Kentucky Speedway on Wednesday, which will allow teams the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the new rules package.
Teams will hit the 1.5-mile paved oval for the weekend's opening practice session on Friday, July 10th, at 10:30 AM (ET). Qualifying will follow at 5:45 PM (ET).
The Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is on Saturday, July 11th, and it will be televised live on NBC Sports beginning at 7:30 PM (ET). The Performance Racing Network (PRN) will carry the live radio broadcast, along with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.