The 56th Daytona 500 on Sunday took about 10 hours from green flag to checkered flag due to a record 6 hour and 22 minute delay due to rain but for Dale Earnhardt Jr it was well worth the wait. NASCAR's most popular driver led the most laps and came to the front constantly during the second half of the race to earn his second career Daytona 500 victory.
Earnhardt Jr first won The Great American Race in 2004 and in the past four seasons before today finished second three times in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport," Dale Earnhardt Jr said in victory lane of Daytona International Speedway. "I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to feel that again and it feels just as good if not better than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year running second all them years wondering why and what we needed to do."
The win is the 20th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory for the 39-year-old driver. It is only the third win for Junior since moving to Hendrick Motorsports back in the 2008 season. He certainly earned the win as he held off numerous challenges from a number of drivers including Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Jeff Gordon on the final lap.
The Daytona 500 started off with the No. 3 Chevrolet of Austin Dillon on the pole and he would lead lap 1. Denny Hamlin, who was looking for a Speedweeks sweep after already winning the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel race, showed he would have a car to be reckoned with again by taking the lead on lap 2.
Rookie Kyle Larson ran into early trouble by scrapping the outside wall and then on lap 3 having a tire go down putting him harder into the wall in Turn 3. He had to pit to change tires and lost a lap. Kurt Busch took the lead from Hamlin on lap 11 after Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota began to overheat. He dropped back to sixth to try to get the debris on his grill off in the draft. Also Greg Biffle got into the wall off Turn 4 on lap 11 and had to pit and also would lose a lap.
The first caution would come out on lap 23 when Kyle Larson had another tire go down. He spun out after not being able to keep control. That was a break for Greg Biffle as he was the recipient of the free pass back to the lead lap. Pit stops occurred and Matt Kenseth couldn't locate his pit box and by the time he did ended up spinning his car out and parking in his box backwards. He would restart in the back.
Kurt Busch held the lead off pit road and led on the lap 27 restart but it was Paul Menard who led at the end of that lap. On lap 31 Denny Hamlin came back to the front by taking the lead from Menard. Also on lap 31 the race ended for Martin Truex Jr who blew an engine in his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet and he finished 43rd. Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 32 right before the second caution came out for fluid on the track from Truex's car.
Under the yellow a few sprinkles began to fall before heavy rain started to come down. The cars were pulled down pit road with the red flag displayed at the completion of lap 38. The top five at that time was Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, and Paul Menard. A few showers on the radar turned into a severe storm and then persistent rain for about the next five hours.
NASCAR was determined to get the Daytona 500 in on Sunday and to do so would have to get at least to lap 100 which was halfway of the scheduled 200 laps around the 2.5 mile tri-oval. Once the rain stopped falling track drying went well and after a 6 hour and 22 minute red flag period the engines were fired and the yellow flag was displayed. Several pace laps were run as track crews dried pit road where the cars were parked and the race went back under green on lap 47.
There was the threat of more rain later in the night so the intensity was high for the remainder of the race as first the drivers raced to the halfway mark of 100 laps and then knew that if it rained after that the race would be called official. It sure made for a wild atmosphere on the track.
Kyle Busch would lead until lap 50 when Denny Hamlin took the lead. He reported that after the rain he had lost communication with his team and more importantly his spotter. Kyle Busch would retake the lead on lap 56 and then Brad Keselowski took the lead on lap 57. Things were wild as Kyle Busch gained the lead again on lap 58 and then Keselowski again on lap 61. Both the inside and outside line seemed to work the same making for great racing and a lot of the times a third lane was even formed.
Paul Menard shot into the lead on lap 65 and then Joey Logano took the top spot on lap 71 the same lap that a round of green flag stops started with Jeff Gordon coming down to pit. After the red flag 22 cars did not pit while the rest of the field did pit to take fuel so the range of green flag stops was going to span over several laps. On lap 72 Menard led a large group of cars to pit. Things were interesting on the lap 73 pit stops as Kasey Kahne spun leaving pit road on a damp surface and Kyle Busch got penalized for dragging his air gun outside the pit box. He had to do a stop and go and lost a lap because of it.
By lap 76 Brad Keselowski was leading over Logano and the duo pitted. The next big group to pit was on lap 83 and on that entrance Trevor Bayne got in hot and ran into the back of Kurt Busch's car. There was some pretty big damage to the right-rear corner of his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Aric Almirola was also slapped with a stop and go penalty after he drug his jack out of his pit box.
Danica Patrick would lead the Daytona 500 for the second straight year before she hit pit road. The full round of green flag stops was completed by lap 90 and the top five was Paul Menard, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth. At that time David Ragan had his Ford pushed to the garage with mechanical issues. He would return to the track later but would finish in 34th.
At the halfway mark Menard still led over Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr, and Logano. Tony Stewart then pitted after his No. 14 Chevrolet began to have power issues. He reset the ECU on his car and went back out but the problem was not fixed. The team diagnosed the issue as a fuel pick up problem and eventually he went to the garage to get repairs. He would return to the track but finished in 35th and for the 16th time came up short of winning the Daytona 500.
On lap 107 Jimmie Johnson took the lead as the 2013 Daytona 500 champion started to show he was a contender again. Paul Menard started another round of green flag stops on lap 114 from the third position. On lap 115 Kasey Kahne and Michael Annett pitted. Annett got too low and into an area that was till damp and he spun out. Kahne sped up so that he could avoid Annett's sliding car hitting his rear and when he did so NASCAR penalized him for speeding on pit road.
Brad Keselowski took the lead on lap 116 and led until he pitted on lap 121 which gave the lead back to Johnson. Johnson then gave up the lead to pit on lap 127. Clint Bowyer also pitted on lap 127 and never went back out as he had engine issues which ended his Daytona 500 in 42nd. The completed round of stops was over by lap 131 and Carl Edwards was in the lead.
Dale Earnhardt Jr then began to show his muscle by taking the lead on lap 135. Edwards regained the lead on lap 144 but Earnhardt Jr had gotten back in front by lap 146.
That is when the tension in the close racing final let loose and the third caution and first since the red flag rain delay came out. Brian Scott was in the middle of three-wide with Kevin Harvick below and Aric Almirola high exiting Turn 4. Scott lightly got into the right-rear of Harvick and Harvick moved up a lane which forced Scott into Almirola and the the two into the outside wall. Almirola then spun across the track and hit Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick. Patrick then slammed into the outside wall hard. In total 12 cars were involved with some sort of damage. Those cars included Michael Waltrip, Paul Menard, David Gilliland, Justin Allgaier, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, and Josh Wise. Almirola, Patrick, and Waltrip were done for the race and finished from 39th to 41st. David Gilliand lost 29 laps and finished 36th and Paul Menard lost 16 laps and finished 32nd. The other drivers involved repaired their cars and stayed on the lead lap. Kyle Busch was awarded the free pass.
The race restarted on lap 154 and Dale Earnhardt Jr gained the lead. Greg Biffle challenged and took the lead on lap 156 and then Dale Jr took the lead again on lap 159.
The fourth caution would fly on lap 162 for a nine car crash. This time Austin Dillon got a little loose and chased his car into the left-rear of Kyle Larson. Larson had no chance and spun and backed up the track in the middle of Turn 3 where he collected Michael Annett, Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, and Brian Vickers. Also Bobby Labonte, Ryan Newman, and Brian Scott got involved. Annett finished 37th and Larson 38th as their nights were done. Vickers and Kahne both ended eight laps down in 30th and 31st.
The race restarted with Dale Jr leading on lap 169. Greg Biffle again took the lead on lap 173 and then his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards took the lead on lap 175. This racing up front was great and Earnhardt took the lead on lap 178 and then Edwards again on 179 before Junior went back ahead on lap 183.
The fifth caution then flew on lap 184 when Trevor Bayne got loose off Turn 2 and nosed into the outside wall. He narrowly missed collecting other cars. That ended his night in 33rd. Again Dale Earnhardt Jr led for the lap 188 restart and on lap 190 Kurt Busch spun off Turn 4 but did not hit anything and NASCAR did not throw a caution. Kurt Busch did lose a lap and would finish in 21st.
Dale Jr still led when on lap 194 the sixth caution flew when Austin Dillon ran into the back of his Richard Childress Racing teammate Ryan Newman and spun him in Turn 3. Newman mashed up into the cars of Cole Whitt, Justin Allgaier, Brian Scott, Parker Kligerman, and Terry Labonte. Labonte would salvage his last Daytona 500 effort in his career and finished 20th. Newman finished 22nd, Scott 25th, Allgaier 27th, Whitt 28th, and Kligerman 29th.
Under the caution Dale Earnhardt Jr's car picked up debris on his grill and there was concern he could overheat but with a restart about to occur on lap 199 of 200 there was no way the No. 88 team was going to give up the lead. Earnhardt had his teammate Jeff Gordon lined up behind him and Carl Edwards was behind Gordon for the restart. Brad Keselowski was on the outside line with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin behind him. Hamlin made some great moves to get to second for the final lap but Dale Earnhardt Jr was strong and blocked all of Hamlin's runs over the final lap especially one down the backstretch.
Coming off Turn 4 Kevin Harvick ran Kyle Busch out of room and the two careened into the wall. Reed Sorenson and Jamie McMurray had nowhere to go and piled in and then Busch spun down the track and collected Carl Edwards with Casey Mears, Joey Logano and Landon Cassill escaping just barely. The seventh yellow flag officially waved before Dale Earnhardt Jr got the checkered flag but the race was officially over.
At the time of caution Denny Hamlin was scored with a second place finish, Brad Keselowski third, Jeff Gordon fourth, and Jimmie Johnson fifth. Matt Kenseth was sixth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr seventh, Greg Biffle eighth, Austin Dillon ninth, and Casey Mears tenth. Joey Logano was 11th and Landon Cassill 12th. Kevin Harvick was pushed along the wall by Jamie McMurray to finish in 13th and McMurray 14th. Bobby Labonte took 15th, the battered cars of Reed Sorenson was 16th and Carl Edwards 17th. Marcos Ambrose was 18th and Kyle Busch backed across the finish line on pit road to finish 19th. Other finishing positions of drivers not mentioned were Alex Bowman in 23rd, Josh Wise 24th, and AJ Allmendinger in 27th.
The win almost all but assures Dale Earnhardt Jr a place in the Chase Grid and is a great start to what many think could be a championship season for Earnhardt. He led a race-high 54 laps.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix International Raceway next Sunday for The Profit on CNBC 500(k).
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