By Shaun Burke
As the sparks settled at the end of the Coke Zero 400, it was David Ragan (with a push from Matt Kenseth) winning his first career Sprint Cup race. After suffering a heartbreaking loss in the Daytona 500, Ragan finally claimed his first win in start number 163.
As usual for the plate races, all the pre-race talk was about the two car tangos. In the Daytona 500, there were 16 cautions, most single and two car incidents, as drivers were struggling to learn how to line up correctly with the car in front. Many times, a driver wouldn’t square up correctly and send the car in front of him spinning.
It was evident in the July race that the drivers have figured out how to handle this style of racing. Early in the race, Brad Keselowski bumped Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne effectively ending Bayne’s shot at repeating at Daytona. A few laps later, it was Biffle turning his teammate and points leader Carl Edwards with an ill-timed bump. After the restart on lap 52, the race went green for over 100 laps.
With two to go, things began getting dicey in the front of the pack and Jeff Gordon ended up with the short straw. Gordon went spinning being narrowly missed by most of the field. In the incident, Kyle Busch got caught up and was forced to restart at the back of the pack (with Gordon). This left Gordon’s drafting partner, Mark Martin and Busch’s partner, Joey Logano without the guy they had been working with all day. Curiously, Jimmie Johnson was called down pit road by his crew chief Chad Knaus leaving Dale Earnhardt, Jr. along for the restart. After the race, Jimmie Johnson tweeted his defense for what happened on the pit stop: “I didn’t leave Jr. hanging, you people are crazy. When my crew tells me to pit, I pit. Steve and Chad sort out the details.”
On the first attempt at a green-white-checker, Martin tried to hook up with Logano. As Martin tried to drop down in front of Logano, he was not clear. This resulted in a huge old-style plate racing wreck. In the end most of the field was involved.
On the final restart, it appeared Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was going to be able to hook up with Jeff Burton and blast to the front. Unfortunately, the two drivers were not able to connect and began to fade to the back. As the drivers came to the checkered flag, Jamie McMurray made contact with Junior and sent him spinning. The wreck relegated Junior to a 19th place finish. After the race, Junior described this style of racing as a “foolish frickin’ race”.
One of the more impressive runs of the race was that of Casey Mears and Landon Cassill. The duo hooked up for the long 100 lap run and ran inside the top ten for most of the run. They would fall back a bit after pit stops and work their way back into the top ten. On the first green-white-checkered, the duo was stuck on the high side with nowhere to go. In the end, Cassill came home with a 26th place finish and Mears finished 32nd.
After Carl Edward’s incident early in the race, he finished 37th and lost the points lead to Kevin Harvick. There are just 22 points separating points leader Harvick from sixth in points Jimmie Johnson. Ryan Newman holds a three point lead over Denny Hamlin for tenth in points, the final guaranteed chase spot.
The win by Ragan also vaults him into the wild car position for the chase. There are currently just four drivers outside the top ten who have won races: Hamlin in 11th with one win, Ragan in 17th with one win, Brad Keselowski in 22nd with one win and Regan Smith in 28th with one win.
Next week will be the inaugural Quaker State 400 at Kentucky. I will be at the track covering the race for OnPitRoad.com. Be sure to follow me on twitter at @jshaunburke for the latest news at the track!