DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The plan was to stay together until the end.
"I'd like for him to stay with me until we get to [Turn] 4," Matt Kenseth radioed to his spotter before the final restart, in a message intended for Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle. "And if he has to make his move, game on."
That was the intention, at least. And who could blame them? The class of the field Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway was clearly the Roush cars, one blue-green and the other red and black, which combined to lead 124 of the 160 laps contested under the lights on NASCAR's most famous track. At one point they fell to the rear, but they hooked up and raced right back up to the front again. With two laps remaining they were nose-to-tail at the bottom and with clear air ahead of them, and prepared to stay that way until they decided the outcome among themselves.
"Tell him to stay hooked up the whole way," Biffle said over the radio, in reference to his teammate, "every lap we run until the end."
In theory, it was the way to go. Kenseth and Biffle had been so strong, continuing a run of excellence by the Roush cars on the 2.5-mile track, that a combined effort seemed almost unbeatable. But Daytona does not operate in the theoretical realm. It works in cold reality, tossing the best of intentions around like so much crumpled sheet metal, laughing at the prospect of plans made with two laps remaining. Kenseth and Biffle did everything right Saturday night, but they left one small opening -- just enough for Daytona to wriggle in between them at the worst possible time.
Suddenly Biffle was sideways, Tony Stewart was headed to Victory Lane and Kenseth was stunned to settle for third. Racing can be a cruel and capricious game, never more so than here, and Saturday offered another reminder that sometimes even the best isn't good enough.
*Video: Stewart takes checkered in late move past Kenseth, Biffle
"That's the thing that fans love and so many teams dislike about a restricted race is, everybody runs so close together that they make a mistake, and you get caught up in a wreck," car owner Jack Roush said in a garage area illuminated by fireworks shooting overhead. "You're really in much greater jeopardy here of not being able to realize the result of preparation or the performance your car dictates. It's just what happens at these restricted races. When you manage to run clean as we have been for the most part, you're lucky. When you get caught up in it as we have tonight, you pay your dues."
Until the final restart, the outcome was no surprise. Roush was gunning for its third consecutive win on Daytona's high banks, Saturday night coming on the heels of David Ragan's victory here a year ago and Kenseth's triumph in the Daytona 500. It seemed like more of the same -- particularly after Kenseth won the pole, and he and Biffle combined to stampede the competition until an accident early in a green-flag pit cycle booted them both back toward the rear.
But even that couldn't keep them down for long. Biffle went to the back under penalty for pitting when pits were closed -- he had ducked on for his green-flag stop just as Jimmie Johnson hammered the wall off Turn 4, causing the red pits-closed light to flicker on right before his stop -- while Kenseth avoided the accident's aftereffects by coasting down pit road at slow speed without stopping, a move that left him 22nd.
No matter. Very quickly they were hooked up again and storming up through the field, bullying their way back into the top 10 with 21 laps remaining, determined to play a role in the outcome.
After a caution caused by a Brad Keselowski spin, Kenseth switched to the high line to draft with his teammate. With eight laps remaining, they were back in front -- and might have stayed there, had Denny Hamlin not nicked the rear of Biffle's car and gone sideways, sparking an accident that involved 14 cars and turned the race into a two-lap shootout. Kenseth and Biffle pledged to stick together. But Stewart hatched a plan of his own, and it involved breaking them apart.
It was his only way to win, and he knew it. "The biggest challenge was the 17 and 16 car, obviously," Stewart said of the Roush frontrunners, "and when they hooked up, I don't think there was anybody that could beat them."
So, Stewart took it upon himself. On the final restart, he went high with Kasey Kahne pushing him. At the white flag, Kenseth and Biffle still drove the train. As the cars hit the backstretch for the final time, it was still the Roush cars out front. But Stewart was right there outside of them. Then there was the smallest bit of separation, and then shockingly it was the No. 14 at the point, and suddenly Biffle was going sideways -- he ducked to the inside as a last gasp, only to find Kevin Harvick already there, sparking a 15-car melee at the finish line -- and a Roush tandem that had owned the race until the final two corners was left empty-handed.
"It was my fault," said Biffle, who wound up 21st. "We had a good car."
Tell that to Kenseth, who was doing a fair amount of second-guessing after the race ended. As Stewart saw it, the Roush cars lost contact just enough for Kenseth to hang back and try to let Biffle catch up -- that plan again -- but instead the reigning Sprint Cup champion scooted by. It all happened in the blink of an eye, but at 200 mph, that was all it took. On the cool-down laps, Kenseth was left ruing the move he never made, breaking off from Biffle and taking on Stewart by himself -- similar to the way he had won the Daytona 500 in February. But loyalty got in the way.
"I think I could have beat the 14," he said, referring to Stewart's car. " ... I should have just went with instinct and kept digging once we were separated."
Of course, there are no guarantees, not at a restrictor-plate track.
"I don't think there's anything more they could have done," Roush said. "I think they were just caught up in restrictor-plate racing."
That was of little solace afterward to Kenseth, who was trying to become the first driver in 30 years to sweep the season's two events at Daytona -- a fact that in and of itself tells you just how unpredictable this place can be. Making the outcome even more sour was the fact that Saturday marked the second consecutive restrictor-plate race where a potential winning move didn't work out at the end; at Talladega Superspeedway in the spring, Kenseth and Biffle were outmaneuvered by another tandem that left Keselowski in front at the checkered flag.
"I guess you need to be happy when you finish that good," Kenseth said. "But also when you have restrictor-plate cars that fast, that doesn't happen very often, and [you] sure want to figure out how to win. ... I feel like you always second guess your moves, but I feel like we had one of the fastest cars at all three [plate] races this year, really. Happy to get third, but on the other hand, I am incredibly disappointed. My team kind of deserved to be down there holding the hardware, and I kind of let them down. But, overall, we had a really fast car, we had a pretty good race, made our way back to the front after the pit road thing and were in contention. Just didn't get it done that last lap."
So much for best-laid plans. Daytona especially has a habit of ruining them.