5 Things We Learned at Daytona
Tony Stewart showed he will not give in close to the finish line
Stewart is a threat to win the only restrictor plate race in the Chase
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has fallen behind rookie Joey Logano in the points standings
Five things we learned under the lights on Saturday night at Daytona:
1. Tony Stewart will never lift off the throttle on the final lap.
With a few hundred yards left in the Coke Zero 400, Stewart made a move to pass Kyle Busch, who was in the lead. Predictably, Busch went to block, Stewart didn't ease off the gas, the two made contact, and Busch wound up going airborne and smashing into the wall. It was a gruesome wreck -- Busch was lucky not to be seriously hurt -- but it underscored that when a win is on the line, Stewart will do whatever it takes to capture the victory.
More significant, Stewart showed at Daytona that he'll be a serious threat to win at Talladega -- another restrictor plate track -- on Nov. 1 in the seventh race of the Chase. Stewart had the dominant car on Saturday, leading a race-high 86 laps, and you can be sure he'll take this same car to 'Dega, where Stewart came in 23rd earlier this season. Talladega is the only restrictor-plate track in the Chase, and it's regarded as the biggest wildcard race in the playoff because it's so easy to get caught up in a wreck. But the best way to avoid trouble on plate tracks is stay near the front, and it certainly looks like Stewart will be able to do that in November based on his impressive run at Daytona.
2. 2009 is starting to look like 2005.
Back in '05, Stewart went on an absolute tear over the summer, winning five times in seven starts. This season Stewart has now won twice in the last five races and there's little reason to think he'll cool down anytime soon. After all, Stewart has more career wins in the months of July and August (13) than any other active driver. He grew up racing on dirt, where the cars slip and slide on every lap. In the summer months, as the temperatures rise, the paved tracks on the Cup schedule become slicker, which plays right into Stewart's hands.
Plus, Stewart now holds a 180-point lead in the standings over Jeff Gordon, which means Stewart can aggressively go for wins over the final two months of the regular season in the hope of collecting the 10-point bonus that goes with each checkered flag. So expect him to keep taking chances -- just like he did on Saturday night when he refused to back down to Busch.
3. Mark Martin can't catch a break on plate tracks.
Martin has never been shy about expressing his disdain for restrictor-plate racing. In April, he wrecked early at Talladega and on Saturday night he crashed into the wall on Lap 13 when he made contact with Matt Kenseth. Martin finished 38th and dropped to 13th in the standings. So with eight races left in the regular season, he now trails Kasey Kahne by 65 points for the final spot that advances to the Chase. I still think he'll make it --- he has three wins this season -- but he can't afford any more major missteps.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. can officially start looking toward next season.
Any chance Earnhardt had at making a charge up the standings to challenge for a spot in the Chase was snuffed out Saturday night. On lap 77, he got caught up in a wreck that took him out of the race. He finished 39th and is now 21st in the standings. Incredibly, rookie Joey Logano is higher in the points (20th) than Earnhardt. And consider this: Of the six drivers in the Cup series that use Hendrick Motorsports equipment, five of them (Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, and Mark Martin) are pretty good bets to make the Chase. As for Earnhardt, well, there's always next year.
5. Carl Edwards will soon win a race.
Edwards authored a nice run at Daytona, finishing fifth. There's a strong feeling in the garage that Edwards, who has yet to reach Victory Lane this season, is poised to win multiple races over the next few weeks. He's my pick to win on Saturday night in Chicago. I'll explain why later this week.