DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- This time there was no fire and there was no rain. But there was plenty of Smoke.
After a crazy Daytona 500 in February that included several rain delays and a fireball produced by a car's collision with a jet dryer, Saturday night's return to Daytona International Speedway was calm by comparison. Still, two things took place that you seemingly always can count on at Daytona. There were several multi-car collisions in the closing laps, and Tony Stewart -- the driver they call "Smoke" -- wound up in victory lane.
Stewart obviously doesn't win every time he visits Daytona International Speedway, but he has picked up more victories at the track than anybody other than the late Dale Earnhardt. Stewart's victory in Saturday's Coke Zero 400 was the 18th of his career at DIS (Earnhardt had an astounding 34 Daytona wins).
Ironically, Stewart's total does not include the prestigious Daytona 500, but he was won just about everything else at the track. He now has four victories in the annual July Sprint Cup race, and has won six Nationwide Series races, three Budweiser Shootouts, three Gatorade Duels and two IROC events.
"It doesn't matter what kind of car it is, it's always an honor to win at Daytona," Stewart said. "There's just something magical about this place."
While Stewart's ability to win at Daytona might not be a surprise, here are five things we did learn Saturday night:
After dealing with Kurt Busch's antics for the past several years, the No. 22 Penske Racing team had to feel like its controversial days were finally over when Busch was booted after last season and replaced with up-and-coming driver AJ Allmendinger.
Well, you know what can happen when you get what you wish for. It was announced less than two hours before the start of Saturday's race that Allmendinger had been temporarily suspended for failing a random drug test that was administered during last week's race at Kentucky Speedway. NASCAR officials would not identify what caused the positive test, stating only that "it's a substance that is not permitted in the substance-abuse policy." If Allmendinger's "B" sample also comes back positive later this week, he will be suspended indefinitely.
Sam Hornish Jr., who drives in the Nationwide Series for Penske Racing, was hurriedly summoned from North Carolina. He landed at the airport near the track approximately a half-hour before the race started and arrived on pit road during the pre-race prayer.
Team officials at the track were not making any public comments, though there was one sign of their frustration with the situation. Most teams offer fans placards with their driver's photo and bio on them displayed in a box near the hauler. Shortly before the beginning of the race, the see-through cover to Allmendinger's box was closed and the top bio had been covered up.
Before Saturday, Burton had managed only one top-five finish all season and had failed to crack the top 10 in two months. But he somehow managed to avoid a late wreck and wound up second.
"It certainly feels good to have a good finish," Burton said. "We've had a miserable year. Hopefully we can build on this. ... Finishing well here tonight is great. Unfortunately it doesn't mean a lot about how our cars are going to drive when we go somewhere else."
Despite having not competed in a Sprint Cup race in four years, Wallace nearly got on the track as a backup driver not once but twice Saturday night.
Wallace, who still races part-time on the Nationwide Series, had been tabbed several hours before the start of the race as a potential relief driver for Kevin Harvick in case Harvick's wife, DeLana, went into labor that day. DeLana is pregnant with the couple's first child, and though she is not due for another two weeks, the need for a possible relief driver arose when she departed Daytona Saturday morning and returned home to North Carolina for what the team stated were precautionary reasons.
Then when Allmendinger's suspension was announced, there was concern that Hornish would not be able to make it to the track in time. So Wallace also was asked to be ready to slide into the seat of the No. 22 car if needed. That led to the odd sight of Wallace standing in the pits less than an hour before the race wearing the red firesuit of Harvick's team and holding the yellow helmet of Allmendinger's team.
It turned out that DeLana Harvick did not go into labor and Hornish did make it to the track, so Wallace's services were not needed by either team. All of which prompted Wallace to declare, "Well, that was a lot of drama."
The restrictor-plate tracks have not been kind to Johnson this year. He has three DNFs this season, and they have all come in restrictor-plate races. He crashed on the second lap in the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 42nd, blew an engine at Talladega in May and would up 35th, and then got bumped from behind as he was slowing to pit late in Saturday's race and slammed into the wall, relegating him to a 36th-place finish.
"My plate record is not looking too good this year," Johnson said. "I hope to get all this bad luck out of the way so that when we come back (to Talladega) in the Chase I can have a good finish. But it's plate racing. I show up every time and know what can happen. Unfortunately it usually happens to me."
NASCAR chairman Brian France gave a midseason state of the sport to members of the media on Friday, and there were subtle indications during the session that NASCAR agrees with many fans that improvements could be made to the product on the track.
"Our stated goal is to have the most competitive and close competition as we possibly can," France said during his opening statement. "It would be fair to say at any one time (the racing) is really, really good or it's not as good as some would like it to be.
"So our goal is to use a lot more science than art for us to keep up, solve issues, create rules packages on intermediate tracks and alike that produce closer, more competitive racing."
Many observers have stated that the new car that was introduced in 2007 to improve driver safety has also produced a vehicle that is so stable that drivers can make mistakes without suffering any consequences. So a miscue that might have led to a spin or a crash in the past now often simply leads to a brief wobble, and the race continues (except in restrictor-plate racing, which is an entirely different animal).
When asked what changes could be made to improve the racing, France did not go into any specifics but reiterated his desire to "make the competition closer, more competitive." And he said the teams agree.
"We're going to use more science than we've ever used in getting those rules packages where we want them," France said. "The teams really have mobilized to work a lot closer with us to get a better result for our fans."