DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a battle of weather vs. patience, NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., endured a six-hour, 22-minute rain delay that included two tornado warnings to win the 56th Daytona 500 Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway.
In winning his second Great American Race (first time was in 2004), Earnhardt held on in the 200-lap green-white-checker finish to beat Denny Hamlin to the checkered flag. Earnhardt’s winning speed was 195.109 mph.
Nothing could stop Earnhardt, not even what appeared to be a trash bag wedged into his front grill.
“Man winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside of accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It feels as good if not better than the first. Especially running second after all the years.”
“Congrats to Junior, the world is right, Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500. That’s a sign the 2014 season is going to be a good one,” fourth-place finisher and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said.
Brad Keselowski finished third, just behind Gordon at the time of a caution right at the finish for a multi-car accident.
Jimmie Johnson was fifth, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, polesitter Austin Dillon, and Casey Mears rounding out the unofficial top 10.
The race was marred by two big multi-car wrecks. The first one, a 12-car wreck, occurred on Lap 146, with Danica Patrick being spun and ran head-on into an unprotected retaining wall at nearly 200 mph.
Patrick was an innocent victim in the 12-car wreck, which occurred coming out of Turn 4. The wreck appeared to begin when Brian Scott went up the track into the car of Aric Almirola, who hit the wall and spun down towards the infield, collecting several cars in the process.
Patrick was in the wrong place at the wrong time and plowed straight into a part of the retaining wall that is not protected by a SAFER barrier.
When asked by crew chief Tony Gibson whether she was okay, Patrick, whose voice appeared shaky on the team radio, responded, “Yeah what the hell happened?”
Later, interviewed by Fox Sports, Patrick added, “I thought everything was going pretty well. … It’s a bummer but that’s kind of the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen and it’s unfortunate that I was at the short end of it all.”
Drivers besides Patrick, Almirola and Scott that were involved in the wreck included Kevin Harvick, Parker Kligerman, Paul Menard, Michael Waltrip, Reed Sorenson, polesitter Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Justin Allgaier and Josh Wise.
Sixteen laps later and in virtually the same spot as the earlier wreck, with two high-profile Sprint Cup rookies battling for the same real estate on the racetrack, Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon spun Kyle Larson, triggering yet another big wreck involving 10 cars.
Dillon, who may have had a tire going down, appeared to get into the rear of Larson, with the cars of Kasey Kahne, Michael Annett, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Brian Scott all being caught up in the resulting carnage.
“I don’t know if Austin got loose and shuffled up the track and got into me and turned us,” Larson said. “It’s Daytona, it sucks to end it like this.”
Trevor Bayne, winner of the 2011 Daytona 500, was involved in a one-car wreck with 16 laps remaining. Kurt Busch then took a solo spin with 10 laps left, but was able to continue on to pit road without a caution flag falling.
Just when it appeared wrecking was over for the night, Dillon triggered yet another wreck, running into the rear of his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, ending with seven cars being involved.
Other drivers in the wreck were Terry Labonte, making his 33rd and final Daytona 500 start of his career, along with Allgaier, Scott, Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman.
But the crashing still wasn’t done as yet another multi-car wreck occurred on the last lap.
Among drivers involved were Sorenson and Carl Edwards.
Three drivers who were among those considered to be potential winners had their nights end not the way they wanted, two due to blown engines, and one other for a different type of mechanical failure.
Martin Truex Jr. lost the motor in his Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet on Lap 31, seven laps before the race was red-flagged for rain.
Clint Bowyer then lost his engine on Lap 126.
“If it was going to blow up, I wish it would have blown up four hours ago,” an obviously dejected Bowyer said.
Tony Stewart took his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to the garage on Lap 135 with fuel pressure problems.
Stewart was able to get back on the track, but finished a dismal 35th in his first Sprint Cup race back since he suffered a severely broken leg in a sprint car crash early last August that resulted in him missing the final 15 Cup races of the season.
Stewart was looking to break a jinx similar to that of the late Dale Earnhardt, who didn’t win his first Daytona 500 until his 20th try. Stewart is now winless in the sport’s biggest race in 16 tries.
The fastest lap of the race was by Dillon, who put down a turn around the 2.5-mile high banks of DIS at 204.3 mph.
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