DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The fabled pavement here claimed as many cars as it could Saturday night, shredding tire after tire and wrecking chassis after chassis in its final death rattle. So it was appropriate that when all the damage was done, and all the smoke wafted away, the driver who took the checkered flag had a tie to the greatest legend of this great track – Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
That man would be Kevin Harvick, who raced past Clint Bowyer with less than two laps to go in the Coke Zero 400 to claim his second win of the season and, in the process, extend his lead in the Sprint Cup Series standings to 212 points over Jeff Gordon. Now, with each passing week, Harvick continues to prove that he does have the ability to return NASCAR's championship crown to team owner Richard Childress for the first time since 1994. That's the year the Intimidator won his seventh and, ultimately, final championship.
But make no mistake, the real story on this Independence Day weekend was the track itself, which will be repaved starting Monday. The Speedway surface teased 17 different leaders on its way out before the 18th, Harvick, finally took over well after midnight. That's a record number of leaders for this race. There were 47 lead changes, only one off the record for what used to be called the Firecracker 400.
Before the night was over, AJ Allmendinger stormed away from Richard Petty in a huff, Carl Edwards nearly came to blows with Kurt Busch and, as usual, there was the 'Big One,' which turned out to be one of the biggest Big Ones in a long time.
"Same old Daytona," said Harvick.
The pavement got a good scrubbing by an afternoon downpour, which delayed the race for nearly two hours and all but assured a calamitous ending on the rubber-free road. And at only a stroke after midnight, leader Clint Bowyer heard crew chief Shane Wilson's tone change instantly: "Clear all around, clear all around. … Big wreck behind us. Big wreck. BIG wreck. Lotta s--- out there."
The pileup behind the leaders, which looked on the big screen like a long string of paper clips being bent by a magnet, wrecked 19 cars – more than half the remaining field. If that was the only late caution, Bowyer might have held on. Harvick fully expected to watch the 33 car cross the finish line first. But still another pileup took out three more cars and left Harvick with a shot. He took advantage of a double-file restart, Bowyer blew a tire, and now No. 29 is suddenly drawing comparisons to No. 3.
"Kevin's becoming one of one of these guys that wins the restrictor plate races," Childress said. "Kinda like Dale Sr., you knew he was going to be a factor in it."
That wasn't always the case. Harvick's team came to Daytona last July in disarray. He didn't come close to qualifying for the '09 Chase and fended off rumors that he and Childress were on the outs. Now Harvick has a new contract and a shot at a potential title that would change his career, his reputation, and his life. He won at Talladega this season and now he's won at Daytona for a second time. Childress' loyalty, much like his loyalty to Dale Sr. a generation ago, now looks like sheer genius.
"Richard pulled the trigger on a lot of different things," said Harvick. "He stepped out on a huge limb in coming up with the money to start over. After last year, you don't complain about anything. You're pretty happy where things are. It's pretty remarkable to tell you the truth."
That it is. And it's also remarkable that Childress won the two final races on the old Daytona track: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Friday night in the 3 car.
The weekend was vintage Daytona, with a little bit of Earnhardt lore and a lot of cataclysm. Harvick knows Jimmie Johnson is "still the man to beat," but he also knows he'll have a chunk of history to keep no matter what happens on the rest of the ride to Homestead.
"I don't really care about the trophy," Harvick said in victory lane. "I want some of that pavement."