If NASCAR Sprint Cup racing at Daytona International Speedway is about speed and excitement, it sure produced both in dramatic style.
Continuing with this year's theme of first-time race winners, Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 presented by Coca-Cola delivered a thrilling victory for David Ragan and his No. 6 UPS Ford Fusion team.
Starting in the fifth position, Ragan and his Roush-Fenway Racing crew had one mission in mind for the race: redemption following their Daytona 500 debacle.
Earlier this season, the 25-year-old Unadilla, GA native was in position to score one of the sport's greatest upsets with a "Great American Race" win. However, a costly late-race restart snafu dropped him out of contention, shifting lanes before the restart point.
On Saturday night, Ragan executed beautifully to capture his first career Cup win in his 163rd start.
“It was a tough one in February and coming back here, we knew that we’d have a shot to win,” Ragansaid per AP Sports Writer Jenna Fryer's article. “We got one back at Daytona. It would have been tough to lose another one. I thought about that under the last caution.
"I was on Matt Kenseth’s radio that last restart and his spotter mentioned it, and I said, ‘You don’t have to tell me, so don’t even say it. That kind of lightened the mood. Everyone was so tense there at the end."
The tension was certainly high during the final moments of the frantic summertime classic forNASCAR, as drafting tandems were broken up like that of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.
Drivers jockeyed for positions in the late going, forming unlikely alliances in the final laps in their efforts to capture the extended 170-lap race. However, the Roush-Fenway Racing Fords of DavidRagan and Matt Kenseth paired up efficiently all evening long, committing to each other all the way to the checkered flag.
While Ragan and Kenseth took home the 1-2 finishing positions, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five with their fast Toyota Camry fleet.
As for the battles behind them, Hendrick Motorsports made a strong bid for a "come-from-behind" win after biding their time in the back of the lead pack for a majority of the race.
Once the laps clicked off, the drafting tandems of Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin picked their way up to the front, as well as Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. before trouble found each racer.
Gordon's car broke loose from contact with Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano off turn four, spinning around before he corrected his car's direction on the apron. With repairs and late-race attrition, the four-time Cup champ salvaged his wild night with a sixth-place finish.
Martin, Johnson, and Earnhardt weren't quite as fortunate when they were involved in their respective incidents during the two green-white-checkered flag restarts. Logano tangled with Martin during the first G-W-C attempt, which sent him spinning and collecting a bevy of lead lap contenders.
Getting swept up in Martin's crash were Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Joe Nemechek, Landon Cassill, Regan Smith, Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears, Travis Kvapil, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, David Reutimann, and David Gilliland.
Truex and Bowyer's cars were damaged beyond repair from the lap 162 accident, which relegated them to finish 35th and 36th.
Coming to the checkered flag on the second and final overtime restart, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made slight contact, which was enough to send them both spinning wildly in front of Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the lead-lap tandems.
That crash along with a separate multi-car accident between turns three and four involved 15 racers, which greatly shuffled the finishing order and points standings.
Heading into Saturday night's race, there was some focus on this year's Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, as he returned to the site of his incredible Cinderella-like victory just over four months ago.
After qualifying second, the concern for Bayne and his No. 21 Motorcraft/Wood Brothers Racing Ford team was finding a drafting partner, which proved critical with the two-car tandem strategy which effectively cost him his race.
Unfortunately for Bayne, his improvised drafting partner in Brad Keselowski sent him crashing in turn one on lap four, prematurely ending his race in the 41st position.
All told, it was a chess match at 200 miles per hour at Daytona, as racers planned their strategies prior to the race before having to improvise if their "dance partner" fell out of the race.
Carl Edwards, who came into the race as the points leader, was also a victim of the two-car tandem, as his teammate Greg Biffle drafted too close for comfort, sending him into the wall around turn four and dropping him to a 37th place finish, 26 laps off the pace.
Here's a look at the top-10 finishing order for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, with team and manufacturer in parentheses:
- David Ragan (Roush-Fenway/Ford)
- Matt Kenseth (Roush-Fenway/Ford)
- Joey Logano (Gibbs/Toyota)
- Kasey Kahne (Red Bull/Toyota)
- Kyle Busch (Gibbs Toyota)
- Jeff Gordon (Hendrick/Chevy)
- Kevin Harvick (Childress/Chevy)
- Paul Menard (Childress/Chevy)
- Juan Pablo Montoya (Ganassi/Chevy)
- A.J. Allmendinger (Petty/Ford)
Heading into next Saturday night's inaugural running of the Quaker State 400 from the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, KY, here's a look at the top-10 points standings, with the two current wild-card seeds following:
- Kevin Harvick (Childress/Chevy/3 wins)
- Carl Edwards (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
- Kyle Busch (Gibbs/Toyota/2 wins)
- Kurt Busch (Penske/Dodge/1 win)
- Matt Kenseth (Roush-Fenway/Ford/2 wins)
- Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick/Chevy/1 win)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick/Chevy)
- Jeff Gordon (Hendrick/Chevy/2 wins)
- Clint Bowyer (Childress/Chevy)
- Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas/Chevy)
- Denny Hamlin (Gibbs/Toyota)
- David Ragan (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
Winning races truly pays divendens, especially for any racer within striking distance of the top-20 standings.
Parlaying consistency, wins, and great strategy between next Saturday night at Kentucky to the September showdown at Richmond, any one within reach of 20th-place Joey Logano could earn a wild card seed.
Calling next Saturday night's Quaker State 400 will be TNT's Adam Alexander, Wally Dallenbach Jr., and Kyle Petty in the booth. Covering the action from pit road will be Chris Neville, Ralph Sheheen, Marty Snider, and Matt Yocum.
Coverage will begin at 7 PM EST on TNT while NASCAR.com's RaceBuddy will cover the race from four in-car camera angles and some unique perspectives online for free.
[Associated Press via Yahoo! Sports]