DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Darrell Waltrip knew his brother Michael had a car that could win the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night. And during the opening laps of the 160-lap event, it looked as if the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion was right as the No. 55 NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota Camry quickly made its way up through the field in impressive fashion. Unfortunately, Michael Waltrip’s bid for a fourth victory at Daytona was taken away when David Stremme got turned into the wall triggering a 14-car crash on lap 77. The NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota was significantly damaged in the front and was forced to the garage for repairs. Waltrip was able to return to the track to run the final 50 laps and finish 37th.
“I saw smoke for maybe about a second or two,” shrugged Waltrip who started the Coke Zero 400 in 29th position after rain forced NASCAR to cancel Friday’s qualifying session and set the field by the rulebook. “The car in front of me stopped. I really don’t know what happened.
“I had a car that could win. My NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota was perfect at the start. We got off a little bit and we adjusted on it. We were making our way back up through there. We really thought we could win.”
Waltrip’s night started with his big brother Darrell calling the green flag and then assisting crew chief Bootie Barker from on top of the NAPA pit box. That’s because two weeks earlier, Darrell was named the NAPA Honorary Pit Crew Member for the Daytona race. He was given the task as co-crew chief.
Earlier in the day during an appearance on SPEED’s NASCAR Race Day with Michael and Barker, Darrell was not shy as he predicted the Coke Zero 400 finish. “I talked to Bootie, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond – I have got the winning strategy. I’ve also instructed my driver to work his hands and not his mouth,” smiled Darrell. “I want him to hold back just a little wee bit and then get on it at the end. That’s what our plan is. Coming off of turn 4 we are going to take the lead. We are going to go to victory circle and then leave here smelling like champagne!”
Michael added, “Darrell is one of the 25 inaugural candidates to be in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. He’s got 84 wins, three championships and a Daytona 500. How could I not want this man on our side?”
The opening laps of the Coke Zero 400 saw Waltrip instruct his spotter to just watch ahead as he was good to go. The two-time Daytona 500 champion was right. By lap 12, he was already in 12th position. Then just two laps later, Mark Martin brought out the first caution of the night when he took a wild ride after clipping the nose of Juan Pablo Montoya. The NAPA team opted to pit a lap later from all the competitors as Waltrip learned a hard lesson the night before when he had a fast car in the Nationwide race but was hit on pit road by an overzealous start-and-park competitor. The NAPA pit crew bolted on four fresh tires and added fuel because as Waltrip told his team before coming onto pit road, “My car is awesome!”
The race returned to green on lap 16 with the polesitter and points leader, Tony Stewart still in the top spot. Waltrip was in 22nd but soon found himself dropping back as the cars in front of him were dicing it up and it was too early for Waltrip to put himself in a compromising position. Unfortunately during this run, his NAPA Toyota was handling tight on the set of Goodyear tires that were put on.
A second caution flag was thrown on lap 28 after David Stremme lost control of his car and made contact with Casey Mears. Waltrip asked Darrell and Bootie for some help. The crew chiefs chose to pit Waltrip again by himself for an air pressure change, four fresh tires and more fuel. A 13-second stop was completed and the NAPA AUTO PARTS Toyota returned to the track in 35th place. As before, Waltrip’s car pushed and Barker informed his driver that they had two sets of tires that had different codes than the first set. The two sets were put on the car during the last two stops. The remaining sets of the tires in the NAPA pit were the same as the first so the tight handling condition was more than likely attributed to the tires.
The race was back up to speed on lap 61 and after a few laps; Darrell asked if the NAPA Toyota was better since Waltrip was once again moving quickly up through the field. The NAPA driver responded back by saying he did like the feel of his car, but it seemed like it would eventually move to the tight side. Regardless, it was better and very competitive. While running in 20th position, Waltrip tried to take evasive action on lap 76, but could not avoid a multi-car wreck. For the second time of the night, Stemme lost control of his car. Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Reed Sorenson, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers were involved along with Waltrip.
The NAPA Toyota came down to pit road for the team to assess the damage. The team discovered water from the radiator was running out from underneath the car. Barker had to tell his driver to take his car to the garage as it needed repaired. The crew worked hard and on lap 109, Waltrip refired his car and was back on track to finish the race, but in a very disappointing 37th position.
“This is a wonderful place to race,” said Waltrip to the media in the garage. “It was slick out there but that’s what to expect from Daytona in July. I’m not sure what Stremme’s problems were tonight. Only he can tell you guys what all happened out there.”
The final lap of the Coke Zero 400 saw Stewart and Kyle Busch dice it up. Busch passed Stewart at the white flag, but on the final lap, Busch tried to block Stewart, and it backfired causing Busch to slam hard into the wall. Stewart prevailed to take the win and join Michael Waltrip as the only active driver to collect three victories at the Daytona International Speedway.
Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth, Montoya and Elliott Sadler.
Waltrip’s teammate David Reutimann was not only involved in the crash that claimed Waltrip’s bid for a win, but he also lost a tire on lap 102. He had to settle for a 36th-place finish.
On Tuesday, Michael Waltrip Racing and NAPA will hold a media luncheon and press conference starting at noon. The press conference will be broadcasted live on SPEED at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Then on Wednesday, the team sets off for Joliet, Ill., for Saturday night’s LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Broadcast coverage of the race on Saturday night begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on TNT. It can also be heard on Sirius XM Satellite Radio and MRN.
Coke Zero 400 Unofficial Results:
Coke Zero 400 Lap By Lap: