Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Daytona 500

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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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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).