It was a night for early trouble for many of the pre-race favorites.
SPORTING NEWS NASCAR WIRE SERVICE
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was the last of times; it was the first of times.
In the last NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Daytona International Speedway with the current spoiler car, Jamie McMurray won his first Cup event since taking the checkered flag in his second series start — with Ganassi Racing — in relief of the injured Sterling Marlin on Oct. 13, 2002.
McMurray’s margin of victory over Kyle Busch in Saturday night’s Pepsi 400 — the last Daytona race, at least for a while, that will carry the Pepsi sponsorship — was .005 seconds, tied for the second closest since electronic scoring was introduced to NASCAR racing in 1993. In finishing inches ahead of Busch, McMurray prevented Busch from becoming the first driver to win a Busch Series race and a Nextel Cup event on the same day.
Busch wins Busch
In Saturday’s first race, Busch had beaten Kevin Harvick by .103 seconds in the rain-delayed Winn-Dixie 250 Busch Series event.
McMurray recovered from an early pass-through penalty for passing below the yellow line at the 2.5-mile superspeedway and worked his way back to the front. With a push from Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards, the driver of the No. 26 Ford surged into the lead in the final 200 yards of the final lap and won the race by inches.
In doing so, he broke a winless string of 166 races that had grown almost unbearably long.
Kyle’s brother, Kurt Busch, ran third, followed by Carl Edwards and points leader Jeff Gordon. Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson completed the top 10.
“On the last lap, Carl had a good run and could have taken it three-wide,” McMurray said. “But he was an incredible teammate and decided to give me a push …
“I think it’s pretty incredible when you’re able to overcome having a stop-and-go and going all the way to the back. It wasn’t a typical restrictor-plate race until the last 10-15 laps, when we raced side-by-side. It was somewhat like a Busch race, where you had to drive and race and get your car to handle.”
No love lost
As narrow as the margin as victory was, the Pepsi 400 also provided the first real confirmation of the widening chasm between Kyle Busch and his teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. Busch and Hendrick have announced a parting at the end of the season, and in Saturday’s race, it showed.
When Busch was fighting McMurray for the lead in the final seven-lap, green-flag run, Gordon pushed McMurray to the lead on Lap 157 of the 160-lap event.
“We just didn’t have the teammate situation worked out today,” Busch said. “I went up to Jeff Gordon to congratulate him after the race, and he blew me off. I guess I won’t be going to any more team meetings. The bliss is over at Hendrick Motorsports for Kyle Busch. I guess we’ll start getting ready for 2008.”
Though he has been highly sought-after since the announcement of his split with Hendrick, Busch has yet to finalize a deal for next year.
In the first race without a Petty in the field since the Chrysler boycott of NASCAR events in 1965, it was a night for early trouble for many of the pre-race favorites. On Lap 14, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart — running first and second at the time — crashed near the exit to Turn 4 after Stewart tapped Hamlin’s rear bumper. Hamlin nosed into the outside wall, and Stewart couldn’t avoid hitting Hamlin’s No. 11 Chevy broadside.
Deeper in the pack, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Chevrolet sustained heavy damage after contact with Bobby Labonte, as a knot of cars checked up in front of them in an attempt to avoid the Hamlin-Stewart mess. Earnhardt, who will take Busch’s place at Hendrick next season, struggled home to a 36th-place finish in his last race at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“All of a sudden [Hamlin] just stops on the exit of [Turn] 4 in front of 42 cars, and I guess he expects all of us to drive around him,” Stewart said of the crash with Hamlin. “I don’t know. It’s tore up two really good racecars …
“He’s a young guy, and he wants to be successful, but I don’t know if he knows the definition of ‘team’ right now.”
Hamlin, who finished last in the field of 43, wasn’t sure what caused the accident.
“I definitely felt a tap from behind,” he said. “The cars were starting to lose their handle there, and, I don’t know, [I was] just trying to hang on. It’s just one of those things. It’s superspeedway racing.”
Kevin Harvick learned early on that he wouldn’t be the first driver to sweep the two Daytona races since 1982, as his No. 29 Chevrolet made hard contact with the outside wall after tangling with Juan Pablo Montoya on Lap 56.
In his pits for repairs, Harvick suggested not too politely that Montoya should consider returning to Formula One racing.