DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.--There were plenty of winners and losers in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. Tony Stewart staged a come-from-behind victory to nip Clint Bowyer by 0.007 seconds in the third-closest finish in NASCAR history. The race also featured a record-tying 35 lead changes among eight drivers.
One of those leaders was none other than Danica Patrick, who added a moment of history to the event before settling to finish 14th, one lap down.
If Sunday's 53rd Daytona 500 can live up to Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona, it will be a wild show.
So let's pick the winners and losers from a dramatic day of racing at Daytona.
Tony Stewart. Stewart was 11th on the restart with nine laps left but teamed up with Landon Cassill to chase down the leaders and steal the win from Clint Bowyer.
"I was worried about Tony snatching it from me; just not in that situation," Bowyer said. "It just went the wrong way. A lot happens pretty quickly out there."
It was Stewart's fourth straight win in this race.
"We had a good car in practice," Stewart said. "It was enough that when I got to the finish line I thought we had won it. If not I was going to look really stupid saying, 'I won! I won!'"
Stewart hopes the momentum carries over.
"I'm definitely the happiest guy going into Sunday's race," he said. "Mentally and physically, it will be the toughest Daytona 500 that I've ever run because of the way we have to race now. You have to look at the positive side that we had a good race today, and Sunday will be another race just like this. Hopefully, we can transfer it to tomorrow."
His right rear tire went flat during the caution after a Brad Keselowski, Patrick Sheltra, and Jason Wise crash. He had to pit to replace the tire and returned in 11th place. But he lost his drafting partner in Bowyer, who restarted in the lead but was being pursued by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. But it wouldn't matter because that was the only moment of adversity that Stewart endured in this race.
"I had told Clint if we were running second and he was leading I was going to keep pushing to make sure a Kevin Harvick, Inc. car was going to win today," Stewart said. "Getting the flat tire definitely changed that. It would have been easier to restart with my teammate there. If I had stayed in line like that I would have stayed second rather than win the race."
The fans. Anyone that didn't think Saturday's Nationwide Series race was great racing simply doesn't know what great racing is. NASCAR has become a victim of its own success and have brainwashed spectators to believe that the only type of great racing is if all 43 cars run in one, large pack. But that didn't happen this year as a new track surface, combined with the shape of the race cars, created a two-car tandem form of racing. The draft works perfectly with two cars nose-to-tail, but add a third to the group and the draft doesn't work.
So the drivers added "Ark Racing" to the mix by forming two-car groups. The result was a thrilling finish as the Stewart and Cassill team staged a dramatic drive through the field to reel in the lead tandem of Bowyer and Earnhardt.
While some of the fans resist the two-car tandems, anyone who didn't like the finish at Daytona on Saturday probably wouldn't know a great race if they saw one.
Danica Patrick. She became the first woman to lead a lap in a NASCAR sanctioned race at Daytona International Speedway when she put the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet in the lead on lap 30. She was credited with leading one lap but would later fall one lap down on lap 95. Patrick finished 14th, her best finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Patrick was also the first woman to lead a lap in the Indianapolis 500 when she drove to the front in her rookie season in 2005 before finishing fourth.
"Unless you had somebody to run with and you were going to push each other all the way around, you were going backwards," Patrick said. "I didn't really have anyone to push with and then I lost touch with Junior and a couple of cars and fell back, although they ended up coming back to us as well. It was really about pushing each other. I pushed a little bit at the end, a little too late, but it was really cool when Clint was pushing me and they told me that I did lead a lap at least so that was really cool."
Patrick was able to get pushed to the lead by Bowyer, who went on to finish second.
"Heck, she was fast enough to be here -- you are looking for fast cars," Bowyer said. "Once we got to her bumper we did fine, but when we switched, we had a problem after that. But that was her spotter."
Landon Cassill. The 21-year-old driver enters the season without a full-time ride in either the Nationwide of Sprint Cup Series. But he was given an opportunity to drive in Saturday's race by team owner James Finch.
"The Kid" proved that he can race with the best and worked with Stewart at the end of the race to determine the outcome. There is no way Stewart could have won without Cassill forming the two-car tandem that was able to track down Bowyer/Earnhardt at the end of the race.
"I had never done any drafting before in a Nationwide Series race so it was really learn on the fly," Cassill said. "It was like a training session with Brad Keselowski. He nearly pushed us to the lead. It was really cool. Brad was a good teammate earlier in my career. I hate that he got wrecked earlier in the race. I'm just trying to figure all of this out. Toward the end, Tony lined up behind me on the restart and pushed me through. I followed directions and when he had to swap with two laps to go, I knew it was a decision that was probably the best for the both of us because he was able to slide through.
"I never lifted, and Tony won the race so it was really cool."
Stewart had plenty of confidence in his drafting partner.
"Landon is not new to this; he's been around a while," Stewart said. "I had the confidence at the end that he was going to be good and fast."
The Nationwide Series. With NASCAR's decision to allow drivers to compete for one championship only, it didn't matter that two Sprint Cup regulars finished one-two because that leaves Cassill as the points leader leaving Daytona. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a ride for next Saturday's race at Phoenix International Raceway.
"I have no contract in place or sponsor -- it's week to week," Cassill said.
But with NASCAR's new approach to having drivers earn points in only one series, Saturday was a perfect opportunity to showcase the best of both series. The Cup drivers were able to put on a show without stealing appoints away from the drivers who are using Nationwide as a development series to one day move up to Cup.
Clint Bowyer. Although he didn't win the race, Bowyer was one of the stars of the show before he had victory snatched away.
"When you're in the money; that's what it is all about," he said.
Sam Hornish Jr., crashing to bring out the first caution. He later crashed coming out of the fourth turn on lap 56. He returned to the track after the second crash, leading some to believe he might be going for the hat trick. Luckily for Hornish, he was able to avoid another crash and finished 36th.
"We just got collected twice, it's a shame," Hornish said. "Both wrecks were about the same each time. The first spin, somebody got sideways and get us turned. Then we tried to get back on the lead lap. The 15 was pushing us and somebody checked up in front of me. I had to get out of the throttle to not get into him. We got spun around and ended up getting into the wall. We had a vibration and the (front axle) toe was kicked out; it was enough for one day. I just wish we could have done a little bit more with our Dodge Challenger SRT8 today. This car was fast and looked awesome. I love racing here at Daytona. It was just a tough day."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed his pit area on his first stop. Earnhardt came down pit road and was looking for the No. 88 pit. The only problem was he was driving car No. 5 in this race.
Michael Annett. How's this for a change? Two weeks after running into the back of another car and getting arrested for DWI in Mooresville, N.C., Annett was rear-ended by Todd Bodine on lap 23 in the first turn. That triggered a multicar crash that brought out the second yellow flag.
Brad Keselowski, Patrick Sheltra and Josh Wise. All three were involved in a scary crash on the frontstretch with 15 laps to go.
"It's just a shame not to be able to be there at the end of the race and have a shot at the win," Keselowski said. "The guys did a great job building a fast race car. We were able to get to the front any time that we wanted all day. I kind of got cut off. I was trying to pass the one (Cassill) car; we'd been working together early in the day. I think he was going to pull down back in front of me trying to work with me. I had someone pushing, and you just can't stop. He came down in front of me and I wanted to get underneath him and he just kept pushing and put me in the grass. It's just one of them deals. Just a little bit of miscommunication. I feel bad for my guys who worked so hard on this car. This Challenger was so fast all day. We really thought that we were going to win this race. It didn't work out. That's racing."
It ended a stretch of a 102 straight Nationwide races where he had been running at the end.
"It's a bummer," Keselowski said. "I've been lucky enough to have great race cars underneath me and lucky enough to be fast. To run 102 races without a DNF is pretty incredible."