Earnhardt emerges from Daytona 500 delay

Junior prevails after

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Through rain and wrecks, on Daytona's longest day, this was a drought Dale Earnhardt Jr. was determined to end.

NASCAR's most popular driver won the Daytona 500 Sunday night for the second time -- a decade after his first victory -- while snapping a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012.

The victory ended a streak of futility at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished second in three of the previous four 500s.

"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship," said Earnhardt, who climbed from his car in Victory Lane and hugged every member of his Hendrick Motorsports crew. "I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good."

As he crossed the finish line in his No. 88 Chevrolet, the few who withstood a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes screaming their support, Earnhardt euphorically radioed his crew, "This is better than the first one!" He was met by Rick Hendrick after his victory lap, and the team owner climbed into the driver's window for a ride to Victory Lane.

Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began for a delay of more than six hours. When it resumed, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father was killed in an accident on the final lap of the 2001 race.

But it got chaotic as it neared the conclusion, with 42 lead changes and four multi-car accidents.

An accident with seven laps to go sparked by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 -- Earnhardt's father's number making its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 -- set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.

Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had teammate Jeff Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.

Then an accident farther back in the field involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.

"We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart," Earnhardt said. "This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn't happen twice, let alone once."

Hamlin was second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Keselowski in a Team Penske Ford.

Hendrick took fourth and fifth with Gordon and the 2013 winner, Jimmie Johnson.

Lately, Daytona could use a dome.

From rain, potholes, soap and fire, the Daytona 500 has had all sorts of delays in the past five years.

The latest one came Sunday, with rain shutting down the season opener for nearly 61/2 hours.

The race resumed under the lights with 162 laps left in the 200-lap race. It needed to hit 100 laps (halfway) to become official.

The second Monday race in three years appeared on the horizon.

The "The Great American Race" has become more known for its lapses than laps or leaders.

Matt Kenseth won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 in 2009. The 2010 Daytona 500 was interrupted for more than two hours because of a pothole in the track.

Rain forced the 2012 race to be run on a Monday night for the first time. Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer that night, igniting a raging inferno that caused another two-hour delay. Safety workers used Tide laundry detergent to clean the track.

Fans flocked for shelter Sunday at the track or left for their cars.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning in the area and advised people to take shelter.

Air Titan, the system designed to reduce track drying time, provided the only action on the track.

But there was plenty of fun going on behind the scenes.

Drivers and other personnel hit social media to give a sneak peek of what it's like to kill time at a soggy Daytona.

Kyle Busch tweeted, "Rain rain go away. Let me lead my way to victory."

His wife, Samantha, posted a photo of her sticking out her tongue while Kyle frowned with the caption, "Rain delay sad/mad faces w @kyle busch."

Andrea Perry, who works the public relations account for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s team, snapped a picture of the Nationwide Series crew lined up inside the hauler on their knees with hands on their heads prepping for a "Tornado drill!!!"

Daytona has lights, meaning NASCAR could stretch the start of the race until late evening. Another Monday run was always a possibility.

"I like prime time," 2012 Sprint Cup champion Keselowski tweeted.

Broadcast partner Fox aired a replay of the 2013 race, won by Johnson, to kill time.

As the day dragged into night, driver David Ragan left for a dinner run -- in his firesuit.

Kyle Busch was atop the leader board when the race was red flagged. Martin Truex Jr. was the first driver out when his car blew an engine on lap 30.

Tony Stewart's night ended with more Daytona heartache.

he was forced to pit road around the halfway point with an engine problem, then later went to the garage with other issues. He sat in the car while his crew worked on the car and eventually returned to the race a whopping 27 laps down.


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