DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Excitement was high as Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up inside the top six for the green-white-checkered flag restart at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates, who had just survived a late-race incident, lined up fourth and sixth, respectively, and planned to team up for the final push to the checkered flag.
But by the final lap, the plan changed and both teammates were just holding on as a final multi-car incident unfolded in Turn 4. Jeff Gordon, who lined up 19th for the final restart, survived the melee and crossed the finish line 12th behind Kahne, who took seventh. Earnhardt was scored 15th, and Jimmie Johnson, who was involved in an earlier incident, was scored 36th.
The early stages of Saturday’s race were relatively quiet as drivers experimented with different drafting partners and took it easy while navigating the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Kahne and Gordon both started the 400-mile event within the top six and attempted to partner up early, while their Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Earnhardt also tried to run tandem around the track.
All four Hendrick Motorsports teammates were running inside the top 10 by the time the first caution period of the race. The yellow flag was waved on Lap 81, and the teammates hit pit road for tires, fuel and adjustments. After the stop, Kahne encountered an issue exiting his stall. The driver of the No. 5 Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet was affected by an incident that also involved Gordon, who already had made his pit stop. Johnson wasn’t near the incident, but Earnhardt had to drive in the grass to slip by unaffected.
Gordon reported that he was concerned with the left-front of his No. 24 Pepsi MAX Chevrolet, but Earnhardt reported to his team that the impacted area appeared fine. Kahne wasn’t so fortunate, and he had to make another stop so his No. 5 team could address the damage to the right-front quarter panel. Kahne returned to the track running 30th and still on the lead lap.
Ten laps later, another caution flag was waved. Earnhardt opted to stay on the track during the caution period, but Kahne took the opportunity to have his team add water to his No. 5 Chevrolet. Kahne reported that his car had good speed, but the car was blowing water under the green flag. Johnson, happy with the way his car was running, made a basic stop for tires and fuel. Gordon, also happy with his car, returned to the track in third for the Lap 96 restart.
With 45 laps to go, Johnson was running 10th and radioed to his team that his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was much more comfortable than earlier. Gordon, meanwhile, told crew chief Alan Gustafson that his water gauges were all over the place.
Gordon and Johnson began their approach to pit road under green-flag conditions on Lap 126 when another multi-car incident occurred. Gordon, running third, was collected by another competitor as he attempted to make his way onto pit road.
“Coming to pit road, I don’t know what happened behind me, but they just started wrecking, and we got caught up in that,” Gordon said. “That definitely changed our day. We were in great position, great car. At that point, it was trying to fix the damage and get track position, and with the damage, they did a great job with that. The car had a lot of speed. It was getting the track position that was hard.”
Kahne and Earnhardt made it through unscathed, but Johnson sustained a hard hit when he, too, tried to make his way onto pit road.
“We’re just not having the best of luck on these plate tracks,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate.
“I waved coming down the back straightaway and motioned I was coming to pit road. And as soon as I checked up and hit the brakes, someone got me from behind and around I went.”
Gordon’s team used four pit stops during the caution period to quickly address the damage to his No. 24 Pepsi MAX Chevrolet. On the final stop, Gustafson radioed to Gordon, “OK, man. You’re good.” Gordon returned in 30th and still on the lead lap, following Kahne, who was fifth, and Earnhardt in seventh in his No. 88 National Guard-An American Salute/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet.
Kahne and Earnhardt still were running inside the top 10 when the third multi-car incident unfolded with 15 laps to go. Gordon, meanwhile, had improved seven spots and managed to drive through the accident, sustaining just a flat left-front tire.
After clean-up, the field reset for the first attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish. Kahne, who lined up fourth, planned to team up with Earnhardt, who was lined up sixth, for the final go around the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Gordon lined up 19th.
When the green flag waved, the field made one complete circuit without incident. But coming to the checkered flag, the final multi-car incident of the race unfolded in Turn 4, affecting both Kahne and Earnhardt. Kahne, who finished seventh, managed to hold on to push Tony Stewart to the win. But Earnhardt was completely collected and scored 15th in his No. 88 Chevy.
“I was trying all I could,” Kahne said. “Another Hendrick Motorsports engine, and as good as our Hendrick engines were all night, I wanted to see (Tony) Stewart win over those other two.”
“It was pretty wild,” Earnhardt said. “We were all running into each other. It was crazy at the end.”