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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” — pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins (including a milestone 50th win), was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski