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Late-race savvy serves Tony Stewart well

No. 14 storms from 42nd to first during Coke Zero 400 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway.

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Jul. 08, 2012

There were some significant numbers attached to Tony Stewart’s victory Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway:

47: Stewart’s career victories, which moves him into 14th place on NASCAR’s all-time list ahead of Hall-of-Fame selection Buck Baker.

41: Cars passed by Stewart, who started 42nd after his No. 2 qualifying time Friday was disallowed after it was discovered he had an open cooling tube in the cockpit of his No. 14 Chevy.

18: Career victories by Stewart at Daytona, second-most all-time to Dale Earnhardt.

4: Spots moved up by Stewart in the Sprint Cup standings, to fifth. Defending champ Stewart trails leader (and Saturday’s third-place finisher) Matt Kenseth by 84 points.

3: Victories this season by Stewart, tied for the Cup lead with Brad Keselowski. Those triumphs will come in handy when the Chase rankings are calculated in September.

But Saturday’s triumph was largely a testament to Stewart’s late-race savvy – most notably his ability to figure out a way to break up, then break down the powerful two-car tandem of Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

“The biggest challenge was the 17 (Kenseth) and 16 (Biffle) cars,” said Stewart. “When they hooked up, I don’t think there was anybody who could beat them. They were like a steam train coming.”

Pole-winner Kenseth and Biffle raced nose-to-tail for much of the night, forming a restrictor-plate tandem that resulted in 124 laps led (of 160) between the two of them.

It took a while for Stewart to even have a chance to race with them. Starting 42nd after his qualifying penalty, Stewart patiently worked his way to the front.

By the time he got there, the race had already seen two major accidents, claiming drivers such as Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.

The second of those wrecks – which involved 14 cars – came with three laps remaining. Kenseth and Stewart started on the front row on the restart, with Biffle behind Kenseth and Kasey Kahne on Stewart’s bumper.

Kenseth took the lead again, with Biffle behind him. It stayed that way for two laps.

“I was going to make sure I kept Greg with me and did a really good job for a lap and a quarter,” said Kenseth.

Kenseth and Biffle briefly separated and Stewart – who said he got a good push from Kahne on the restart – took advantage. He bolted past Kenseth and, as the two Roush Fenway teammates tried to reconnect, took control as he entered Turn 3.

Stewart even eased up slightly, backing up to Kenseth so that Kenseth wouldn’t be able to make a last-gasp run on him.

Then, just to keep things interesting, Biffle swerved as he chased Stewart and Kenseth to the finish. That caused another big wreck – this time involving 15 cars as the checkered flag flew.

“We’ve had really good luck at Daytona, obviously,” said Stewart, who has won four of the speedway’s July races but yet to win a Daytona 500. “But I wish I could trade a couple of these races in for just one Sunday race in February.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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