NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 94 laps in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. For many of those laps, teammate Kasey Kahne dutifully kept the aerodynamic advantage in the Hendrick Motorsports camp, slipstreaming behind him in second place.
Lap after lap, the Daytona scoreboard displayed "48 5" at the top. But Kahne wasn't around to see Johnson drive to the checkered flag first.
On a night where several Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff hopefuls encountered problems, Kahne was unable to capitalize, sidelined by a crash six laps shy of the 161-lap distance. The No. 5 team's 32nd-place finish dropped him one spot to 12th in the standings with eight races left before the 12-driver postseason field is set.
Kahne still holds one of the two provisional Wild-Card berths into the Chase, but it's a less-than-secure grip. Instead of putting some distance on his rivals, Kahne now has five drivers close on his back bumper within 15 points of his position in the standings.
Kahne's otherwise promising day soured in the 156th lap in a contest for the race lead. Marcos Ambrose challenged Johnson's race-long supremacy with a stout run off the second turn.
Johnson changed lanes to block Ambrose's advances on the backstretch. Whether they collided depends on which driver you ask (Ambrose claimed Johnson bumped into him; Johnson disagreed), but the fact remains that the No. 9 Ford of Ambrose sideswiped Kahne's Chevy, sending it on a prolonged slide into the inside retaining wall.
"I had followed Jimmie a lot throughout the race. I felt really good with our Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet. Next thing I know, I got slammed and shot left," Kahne said after he was evaluated and released from the track's infield care center. "It was the end of our night. It's kind of how these races go. You don't have a lot of control over some of the things that happen here. I'm happy our car was fast, and we put a good showing out. We ran up front the whole race."
A lack of control in events at Daytona and sister track Talladega Superspeedway has been the theme of the year for Kahne, who has crashed out of all three events where restrictor plates limit horsepower. Saturday night's failure to finish left him 0-for-39 on restrictor-plate tracks for his career
Kahne will likely have a friendlier venue next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he is the defending race winner.
Consistency matters: Another feature of Johnson's season sweep of races at Daytona is a peerless streak this year on restrictor-plate tracks. Saturday night's win made him the only driver with top-five finishes in all three plate races this season. He was fifth behind race winner David Ragan in May at Talladega Superspeedway.
McMurray's move: It isn't leaps and bounds in improvement, but Jamie McMurray will take it. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver led 10 laps to finish seventh, right on the heels of his runner-up finish the previous week at Kentucky. The modest streak marks his first back-to-back top-10 finishes since he placed eighth at Las Vegas, then seventh at Bristol in March 2012.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
5. The number of spots in the Sprint Cup standings lost by this weekend's biggest stumblers. Joey Logano skidded five places to 15th after scraping the wall and exiting with a 40th-place finish. Paul Menard's engine failure after just 23 laps left him with a last-place finish, causing him to plummet to 20th in the points.
9. The finishing position of Casey Mears, who drove the No. 13 Germain Racing Ford to his first top-10 finish in the Sprint Cup Series since Aug. 16, 2009. That day, Mears finished sixth at Michigan International Speedway in a No. 07 Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress. Saturday night marked only the second top-10 finish in 154 Sprint Cup starts by the Germain team.
29. The number of laps led by Kyle Busch, a distant second to Johnson's 94 out front. Busch, the Coors Light Pole Award winner at Daytona, recovered from front-end damage in an early wreck, but crashed across the finish line behind Johnson for a 12th-place run.
Kahne wasn't the only Hendrick Motorsports driver with trouble making strides in the Wild-Card hunt. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon also endured a lackluster night after a late wreck relegated him to 34th on the rundown.
Gordon slipped two spots to 14th, currently out of a Chase position. Race runner-up Tony Stewart still holds the last spot among the top 10 automatic qualifiers, having gained six spots with his podium finish at Daytona. Martin Truex Jr. dropped from the top 10, but holds a Wild-Card spot thanks in part to his win last month at Sonoma Raceway.
THEY SAID IT
"It's not as aero as you would think, but just very proud of the night." -- Johnson, after joining his crewmembers in flipping up their hats' bills in Victory Lane.
"I had a ball. I asked my crew when the checkered fell to remind me why I do this." -- team owner and occasional driver Michael Waltrip, after finishing fifth.
"Danica ? call me!" -- Shaquille O'Neal, NBA legend and Coke Zero 400 co-grand marshal.
The Sprint Cup Series heads for the first of two stops this season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which also hosts the second event in the 10-race Chase in September. Denny Hamlin ruled the 1.058-mile track in Loudon, N.H., last season, finishing second to Kahne in July then backing up his guarantee with a "called shot" win there in the fall. ... Hamlin's win in a Toyota last September broke a six-race string of victories at New Hampshire by Chevrolet drivers. ... Ten different drivers have won the last 10 Loudon races. The track's winners (in order) since 2008: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Logano, Mark Martin, Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Stewart, Kahne, Hamlin.
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