Tony Stewart was relentless from a late-night start through an early-morning finish in the Pepsi 400, and won the race with barely any challenges.
Stewart led 151 of the 160 laps around Daytona International Speedway, the most in this race, breaking Cale Yarborough's race record of 142 in 1968.
Jamie McMurray was second, and hard-luck Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third to match his best finish of this season, in the season-opening Daytona 500 here.
It was Stewart's first points-race win at Daytona, and he celebrated by climbing not only the fence but the flagman's stand, and waving to the cheering crowd estimated at 125,000 that had stayed throughout.
Of the 1:42 a.m. finish, caused by a more than two-hour rain delay, Stewart cracked, "Man, I'm nocturnal. I'm an old sprint car and midget car racer, and at this time of night, we're usually just loading up on our trailers and headed for the Waffle House anyway."
Jeff Gordon, winner of four of the last five restrictor-plate races going into Saturday night, finished seventh with a car whose loose condition, or oversteer, couldn't be cured all evening.
The race finally started under a yellow flag, to continue to dry the track, at 10:38 p.m., two hours and 18 minutes after the planned start. The green flag didn't turn the cars loose at full speed until 11 p.m., after 11 laps under caution were complete.
Stewart took command immediately from the pole, leading early under green, with Jimmie Johnson second after Scott Riggs, who'd started on the è outside of the front row, dropped immediately back in the draft.
Stewart led the first 39 laps before relinquishing the lead to Mike Wallace briefly after a pit stop. But then Stewart got the lead back on the 41st lap and kept on dominating the first half of the race.
Gordon started 15th, but just as Stewart had predicted going in, Gordon began to work his way up quickly. He was eighth after only eight laps of green, and sixth after 20 at full speed.
So for Stewart the early going was a matter of holding off immediate pursuers Johnson, Joe Nemecheck and Rusty Wallace, and waiting for Gordon to appear in his rearview mirrors.
But it was what happened in Gordon's mirrors that started the first "Big One" ¡V the chain-reaction wreck drivers deem inevitable in plate races ¡V on the 36th lap.
Gordon slowed to pit under green, and waved to signal those behind him. Jamie McMurray saw Gordon's signal and slowed. Riggs, just behind McMurray and coming fast, then moved up the racetrack to keep from rear-ending McMurray.
That move was what detonated the nine-car melee.
Earnhardt, whose atrocious luck this season was already notorious, got right-front contact on his Chevrolet, but his luck took a brighter turn. The damage wasn't severe, and he began to work his way up. After 50 laps he was 14th, after a 39th-place start.
Another sentimental favorite, Mark Martin, driving his last race as a full-time Cup competitor at Daytona, was caught up in the mess. Also damaged were the cars of Riggs, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Scott Wimmer, Casey Mears, Ken Schrader and reigning Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch.
None of the drivers involved was seriously injured.
Under the ensuing caution, all the leaders pitted. But by the restart with 41 laps down, the front running order hadn't changed much. Stewart still led, followed by Johnson, Harvick and Wallace. Kenseth managed to move into fifth ¡V his Ford wasn't badly damaged ¡V and Gordon dropped back to ninth after being beaten out of the pits.
Earnhardt's teammate, Michael Waltrip, began to pester Johnson for second place on the 61st lap, and they engaged in a side-by-side duel for nearly two laps before Waltrip took second with a push from McMurray.
But Waltrip couldn't make a run on Stewart for the lead before the third caution came out, for debris on the front stretch. That gave Gordon a break to pit for handling problems; he'd fallen back to 16th.
On the restart, the field couldn't even complete a full lap of green before Mike Wallace smacked the wall in Turn 2 to bring out the fourth yellow of the evening.
Next restart, even worse: Waltrip spun with a cut-down tire, and this time collected points leader Greg Biffle, on the 73rd lap.
Ed Hinton can be reached at email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times