Race Capsule: Elated Earnhardt Jr., after long day at Daytona
In a nutshell: The two parts of the Daytona 500 were night and day - literally. The Great American Race started just after 1:30 p.m., only to have rain rear its ugly head on lap 38 just after 2 p.m., during a caution period for a blown engine by Martin Truex Jr. The ensuing bands of rain brought NASCAR's new Air Titan drying machine on and off the track multiple times over an agonizing 6 hour, 21 minute rain delay. NASCAR finally called drivers back to their cars just after 8 p.m. and had them cutting eight caution laps, before taking the green just before 9 p.m. on lap 47. In the beginning, Austin Dillon led the first lap, before surrendering the point to Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, and several others before the rain.
Kyle Busch led the field at the stoppage and then swapped the lead with Kasey Kahne, as they were two-wide when the race went green. The field was largely single-file in the opening stage during the day. But the stir crazy fever of the humid night at Daytona increased the intensity the rest of the way and 75% of the Daytona 500 saw a two-wide or three-wide field. Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Paul Menard all swapped the lead in the meat of the race, with Menard leading at the halfway point on lap 100. During this green flag period, Kahne spun on a damp exit of pit road on one set of pit stops and then got busted by NASCAR, when he sped up to avoid a spinning rookie Michael Annett on a rain-soaked entrance to pit road. The mishaps and penalties kept Kahne out of contention, as did crash damage toward the end of the night. The race stayed green for 99 laps, when hell broke loose. Rookie Brian Scott seemed to make contact with Kevin Harvick, triggering a 13-car crash on lap 146.
Danica Patrick took a hard hit, as she failed to brake and drilled the wall. Another crash nine green flag laps later took rookie Kyle Larson out of contention, after he had gained laps back from early race problems. Dillon got into Larson, spinning him and collecting about nine total cars. 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne spun and crashed out with 15 laps to go. On the following restart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had led on and off and had been close to the lead all race, especially since lap 131, led the field to green again. Greg Biffle, who lost a lap after hitting the wall early in the race, had been trading the lead, but got bottled up on the outside line behind Georgia driver Reed Sorenson. With just five laps to go, Dillon tagged teammate Ryan Newman, who spun up the track and demolished rookies Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, Cole Whitt, and Brian Scott and veteran Terry Labonte (making his final Daytona 500 start). That crash set up a restart with two laps to go - not an overtime finish, but technically a green-white-checkered. Earnhardt Jr. punched the throttle at the beginning of the restart box and switched lanes to get a big push from teammate Jeff Gordon.
Despite challenges being mounted by Hamlin, Kyle Busch, 2013 winner Jimmie Johnson, and Keselowski behind him, Earnhardt Jr. had a strong enough car to jostle and stay at the point and win this race that he won for the first time ten years ago. The rain-soaked long day didn't sap "Little E's" energy. He expressed utter joy on his radio, "I can't believe it! I can't believe it! Unbelievable!" Earnhardt Jr. had finished 2nd in the 500 in three of the last four years before. Denny Hamlin finished 2nd, Brad Keselowski 3rd, Jeff Gordon 4th, Jimmie Johnson 5th, Matt Kenseth 6th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who made a huge surge on the last lap to break up the Busch-Hamlin draft) 7th, Greg Biffle 8th, pole sitter Austin Dillon 9th, and Casey Mears (who overcame crash damage and pit road speeding penalty) 10th. Kurt Busch spun on the 2nd-to-last lap, coming to the white flag, but the race stayed green. As the field came through the tri-oval to the finish, Kyle Busch spun and collected Sorenson, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, and Harvick. Many NASCAR fans stuck around and found their seats after the long delay and didn't even need them at the end. NASCAR's most popular driver found Victory Lane in its biggest race, at the start of a defining changing season in the sport. And, by the way, the win virtually guarantees Earnhardt Jr. a berth in the new wins-heavy Chase format.
RaceTweet: DaleJr wins the Daytona 500 after huge rain delay. Racing crazy after the layover, with four-multi-car wrecks.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Of course. He didn't win this plate race cheaply, having led the most laps (54), including the final 18. And it wasn't a runaway. There was a hive of hornets behind the No. 88 and any could have won. But Earnhardt Jr. says this car was the one he most connected with in the 500, since joining Hendrick Motorsports. So Junior and the whole 88 team get the nod.
North Korean Missile Dud of the Race: Tony Stewart - In his big return from the leg injury, Stewart never got a chance to flex his muscles. Problems with the fuel pickup and fuel cell brought long repairs on pit road and a trip to the garage. Stewart finished 35th, 26 laps down.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Casey Mears - Mears got wrecked in the Bud Duel, his team repaired the car. He got a pit road speeding penalty under green and got the free pass during a caution, in which he scraped the wall. Through all that, Mears drove up to 10th, which is a great run for small Germain Racing, in their first race aligned with Chevy and Richard Childress Racing.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kasey Kahne - A fast car means little, when you don't have the horseshoe. Kahne's troubles were documented above. He and the No. 5 team were incensed with NASCAR's penalty for speeding up to avoid Annett's spinning car at the wet entrance to pit road. They maintained that they had to speed on pit road to avoid being wrecked. Didn't matter. NASCAR did the right thing in enforcing the speeding rule, but made the real mistake by letting the race restart with pit road areas still being damp. Kahne finished eight laps down in 31st, after also getting caught up in a couple of other crashes.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Landon Cassill - The No. 40 Hillman Racing Chevy wasn't even a good candidate to make the race. But after racing in, Cassill certainly wasn't to finish on the lead lap. But wait, Cassill managed to avoid several wrecks and finished an impressive 12th. For a team and driver that will be starting-and-parking much of the year, finishing in the top 15 in the most competitive and biggest race of the year is a great shot in the arm. And the money isn't bad either.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Kurt Busch - Busch gave up the lead early in the race, when he got out of line to try and make a move and dropped back. But that's not a huge fault. What's less understandable is why we never heard from him again. After having a fast pony early, Busch didn't do much riding in the back or front, but just stayed mid-pack, about 12th. And then on the penultimate lap, he spun out without any contact, similar to how Jimmie Johnson spun in the Sprint Unlimited. Busch's beginning with his new No. 41 team got off to a weird start and maybe not at much fault of his own.
Georgia on My Mind: Peachtree City's Reed Sorenson seemed poised to turn heads in the No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy. He was running as high as 3rd in the closing laps, but leading the outside line during a restart bogged it down and he got shuffled out and back. Sorenson still fought into the top 10, only to get caught in the last lap crash and finish 16th. Unadilla's David Ragan started 43rd, cracked the top 20, but broke a transmission before midway and ended the night 34th.
What's Next: The Sprint Cup Series joins its Nationwide brethren at Phoenix International Raceway next weekend. Look for coverage on FOX and MRN at 3:15 p.m. next Sunday. Earnhardt Jr., by the way, told the press that he won't really get to celebrate his Daytona 500 win until after the PIR race, when he stops in Las Vegas. Look out.