Dale Earnhardt Jr. reigns in Daytona 500
Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) – This year’s Daytona 500 featured the longest rain delay in the event’s 56-year history — 6 hours and 22 minutes — but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was well worth the wait.
Earnhardt, who was voted as NASCAR’s most popular driver for a record 11th consecutive time this past season, avoided being caught up in four big crashes late in the race and held off Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski as well as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson during the last two laps to win the Daytona 500 for the second time on Sunday night.
His first victory in NASCAR’s most prestigious race of the season came in 2004.
A seven-car crash started by Ryan Newman in turn 3 on lap 195 set up a two-lap sprint to the finish. After the final restart, Earnhardt pulled away from the field, but Hamlin challenged him for the lead on the last lap until a six-car wreck occurred coming out of turn 4, ending the race under caution.
Earnhardt snapped a 55-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series. His last victory came in June 2012 at Michigan.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport, besides accepting the trophy for the [Sprint Cup] championship,” Earnhardt said in Daytona’s Victory Lane. “I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to feel that again, and it feels just as good.”
Earnhardt, who is in his 15th full season of Cup Series competition and his seventh season as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, had finished second in three of the last four Daytona 500s, including a runner-up to Johnson one year ago.
“If there’s ever a guy who is due, it’s the guy who finished second three out of the last four years,” said Keselowski, who finished third.
Earnhardt became the 11th different driver to win the Daytona 500 multiple times. His late father, Dale Earnhardt, scored his lone victory in this race in 1998, in his 20th try.
It was the 20th career victory for Earnhardt in the series, including his third at Daytona International Speedway. He won the July 400-mile race here in 2001, which was the first event at this track since his father’s death in a last-lap accident in the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt led a race-high 54 laps, including the final 18. During the last caution, he ran over a piece of Bear Bond crash tape that had come from Newman’s car. The tape attached to Earnhardt’s front grille, but it had no effect on his car during the finish.
“This race car was awesome,” Earnhardt said. “We showed them all night long how good of a car we had. This thing could do anything. We fought off battle after battle. We got a little help there at the end from Jeff [Gordon] to get away on that restart.”
Hamlin was attempting to win all three Sprint Cup events during Speedweeks at Daytona. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the preseason race on Feb. 15 and the Daytona 500 qualifiers this past Thursday. Hamlin had communications problems with his spotter late in the race.
“Our radios got wet after the rain, and I didn’t perform as good as I could have because I was trying to spot myself at the end of the race,” Hamlin said. “It’s hard to win a superspeedway race when you don’t know when runs are coming, when you have to time your passes and everything, especially when you’re trying to guard against causing a wreck, knowing you got radio silence.
“It was tough and disappointing because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end for the green-white-checkered to possibly time a run on [Earnhardt].”
Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 champion, finished fourth, while Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, placed fifth. Johnson was one of nine drivers who had to start from the rear of the field in this race. He used his backup car after wrecking his primary vehicle during the last lap of the qualifiers. Johnson also crashed in the preseason event.
Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon, the pole sitter, and Casey Mears finished sixth through 10th, respectively.
Dillon, driving the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, a car number made famous by Earnhardt’s father, triggered a 10-car pileup in turn 4 on lap 163 when he got loose and bumped into the back of his fellow rookie competitor Kyle Larson. Dillon was also in the first major crash of the race, happening on lap 146 and involving 13 cars.
“I think the yellow stripes on the bumper showed a little bit tonight, but we made it through it,” Dillon said. “After we got in the wreck, I don’t know how we didn’t hit the wall. I had a little damage, but was just a lot freer after that. The car was still fast, just a little loose.”
The 13-car incident on the frontstretch was started when Kevin Harvick made contact with Brian Scott, who then hit Aric Almirola. Danica Patrick collided into Almirola and then shot up the track before she slammed hard into the wall.
“It’s just upsetting,” said Patrick, who finished 40th after her eighth-place run in last year’s Daytona 500. “I think it’s a culmination of sitting around all day. It’s unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident, but that’s the kind of thing that happens.”
A fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms moved over this 2.5-mile superspeedway about 40 minutes after the green flag waved for the start of the Daytona 500 at 1:30 p.m. ET. NASCAR displayed the red flag when 38 laps had been completed, as the field came to a stop on pit road.
The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning as well as a tornado warning for the area during the late afternoon. The rain stopped shortly before sunset, and NASCAR’s new track-drying system, the Air Titan, began its task. The Air Titan was designed to shorten the amount of track- drying time.
The field returned to the track at 8:35 p.m., running eight laps under caution before the green flag was displayed again at 8:53 p.m. Kyle Busch was leading when the race had been stopped. Busch ended up finishing 19th.