DAYTONA BEACH FLA. - Tony Stewart, once the master of the mid-summer race at Daytona, returned to victory lane Saturday night beating a dominate Matt Kenseth on the final lap to win the Coke Zero 400.
Kenseth along with Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle had been the class of the field with Kenseth leading 82 of the 160 laps, but it was Stewart who charged to the outside of the duo to win his third summer race at Daytona and his first since 2009.
In what has become almost typical for the summer Daytona race, as Stewart crossed the line a pack of 15 cars were crashing behind them. Jeff Burton was able slip into second with Kenseth coming home third.
Kenseth, who won the season opening Daytona 500 and started from the pole Saturday night, quickly took control of the race. Once he and Biffle hooked up the two seemed nearly invincible and for the first half of the event the field could do nothing as the Roush duo held the bottom line and swapped positions in the front. The only time the two weren't leading were during green flag pit stops. It didn't take long however for the two to return to the front of the field and by the halfway point it looked as though it would be Kenseth's race to lose.
The first caution of the race didn't come out until lap 81 when Sam Hornish Jr., substituting for AJ Allmendinger who was suspended by NASCAR hours before the race, lost a tire and spun on the backstretch.
During the caution, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman made contact on pit road spinningg Newman's Chevy into the stopped car of Brad Keselowski sending crewmembers and NASCAR officials scrambling.
Kenseth was again in the lead when the second caution came out on lap 90. Kurt Busch tried to go into the middle of two cars making contact with Aric Almirola. Busch was sent up into the Ford of Trevor Bayne. The accident also involved Bobby Labonte but all the cars were able to drive away.
By lap 103 Stewart who had to start from the rear of the field after having his qualifying time disallowed Friday, was in seventh place.
While Kenseth held station on the bottom and in the lead, the rest of the pack tried to find different lines but to no avail. On lap 124 the second multi-car accident happened as Kenseth and Biffle in front of the field slowed exiting turn 4 for green flag pit stops. A chain reaction behind them swept up six cars including Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Johnson, who crashed out in the season opening Daytona 500, was sent head first into the inside wall. He wasn't hurt but his race was finished. The others involved with the exception of Johnson and Bill Elliott were able to continue.
"We were all getting ready to pit so I was waving my hand out the window down the backstretch through (Turns) 3 and 4," Johnson, who scored 36 said. "As soon as I let off the gas to come to pit road, someone got into the back of me. I don't know if they didn't see my hand waving or what really went on, but I was just trying to get slowed down to come onto pit road and I got hit from behind. I went down on the inside wall. As I was spinning, I could see a lot of other cars were collected too."
Stewart found himself in the lead on the restart on lap 131. While for the first time during the entire race, Kenseth and Biffle found themselves split up and deep in the field. By lap 143 however the duo were together again and heading towards the front.
A caution for a solo spin involving Keselowski stopped Kenseth's progress on lap 144.When the green flag flew again, Kenseth and Biffle again charged towards the front and for the first time all race long, they were able to use the outside lane to take the lead.
On lap 152, the biggest crash of the evening happened bringing out the fifth and final caution. Heading into turn one, Denny Hamlin was sent spinning; the subsequent crash took out 14 cars.
The restart seemed to be made for Kenseth as he was in the lead with Stewart second and Biffle third. Biffle lined up behind Kenseth for a two lap shootout. Stewart was able to stay even on the outside and on the white flag lap was able to make the move that broke up the Kenseth-Biffle duo and win him his third race of the 2012 season.
"I don't even remember what happened that last lap," Stewart said."I just got in that second lane and just tried to get the No. 17 and No. 16 pulled apart. Once we got them pulled apart it gave us a run on the outside .We were just so good on restarts, just a weird day. These races I'm still voting for a figure eight race here."
As he crossed the line, a 15 car accident erupted behind them that included Biffle.
Behind Burton and Kenseth, Joey Logano was fourth with Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman rounding out the top five.
"I guess you need to be happy when you finish that good," Kenseth said. "But also when you have restrictor plate cars that fast it doesn't happen very often and you sure want to figure out how to win with them…We had a pretty good race and made our way back to the front after the pit road thing and we were in contention, we just didn't get it done that last lap."
Carl Edwards was sixth, Kahne seventh and Keselowski recovering to finish eighth. Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte were able to dodge the final crash to come home ninth and tenth.
Kenseth was able to extend his championship points lead to 25 over second place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 15 Saturday night. With his win, Stewart moved up four spots to fifth.