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Today was no beach party

Watch highlights of a dramatic Daytona 500.
Watch highlights of a dramatic Daytona 500.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Back in the day, no matter whether it was the February race or the July race, when we were going to Daytona all of us would say we were “going to the beach.”

The thing that was different then was this was before motor coaches that stayed at the track. All of us — drivers, owners, and teams — stayed down along A1A there in hotels along the beach. Obviously we were there twice a year to race, but staying on the beach gave you the feeling at times that you were on somewhat of a vacation.

Just let me say, the 2012 Speedweeks in Daytona Beach was the farthest thing from a vacation that most of us will ever see. Everything just seemed out of sync. Who knows, maybe because February had an extra day in it this year, things were thrown off kilter.

There hadn’t even been a car on the track when our racing community was rocked back on its heels when we learned Chris Myers' oldest son had been killed in a car wreck in California. So right out the box, our hearts were broken. Like we tell you all the time, in racing you never have ample time to grieve. It’s always right to the next race. In this case, our NASCAR on FOX team and our SPEED team had to work together to shift people around to cover for Chris because we had the Budweiser Shootout that Saturday evening.

That race set the tone for a wild-and-crazy 10 days at Daytona. Cars were wrecking. Sparks were flying. Cars were upside down and on fire. What Kyle Busch did, coming back from two spins to win that race showed some of the most amazing driving any of us have ever seen.

Tony Stewart, who looked to be on his way to winning the race, had to be thinking that after everything Kyle’s car had been through, it must have been pretty used up. Guess what – the ol’ girl still had a lot left in her and Kyle wheeled her past Tony's at the line and then straight to his first Victory Lane of 2012.

Qualifying the next day gave us a pretty good idea that those Roush Fenway Fords were going to be a force to reckoned with. Team owner Jack Roush's cars started first, second and fourth when Mother Nature finally cooperated enough to let us run the Daytona 500.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Historically, the Duel races feature one race that is pretty wild and then the other one seems to be much calmer. That was the case again this year.

That first race was pretty crazy. On the last lap of the first 150-mile qualifying race, Danica Patrick took one of the hardest hits seen at Daytona in a long time. She got clipped in the right rear and got sent flying off the racetrack, luckily into an area that had SAFER barriers off of Turn 2.

She was also fortunate that the car hit passenger-side first into the wall. The thing came off the ground with parts and pieces flying all over the place. It’s just amazing to me the discipline that driver shows in the midst of a wreck. I saw her two years ago do it in an ARCA race and again last Thursday. She was headed for the wall at 180 mph but still had the presence of mind to take her hands off the wheel and up to her helmet before impact. This was to protect her wrists and hands from injury. It’s something she learned from her IndyCar days.

Ironically, our NASCAR on FOX team already had an interview set up for me to talk to her later that afternoon. She came limping into the interview room because she had bruised her foot on the clutch pedal, her ribs were tender, but you never once heard her complain. She is such a competitor that all she could think about was how that wreck had cost her a really fast race car and she was being forced to use a backup car.

So the rest of the Daytona 500 field was set following the 150s. Stewart got his first win of the season with new crew chief Steve Addington. All things considered, he had a pretty easy go of it to take the checkered flag. Matt Kenseth again reminded everyone how stout those Roush Fords are by winning the other 150.

The other interesting scenario that came out of the 150 race that Matt won was between him and teammate Greg Biffle. Little did we know, those two would be in the same picture come early Tuesday morning at the end of the Daytona 500.

In the 150, Greg had the fastest car and was leading the race near the end. Matt and Jimmie Johnson came roaring up in the outside lane with a huge head of steam. For whatever reason, despite the fact the outside line really hadn’t proven to be advantageous, Greg decided to come off the inside line, go up and try to block Matt and Jimmie.

daytona 500 action

IT'S A BLUR

See the best photos from the 2012 Daytona 500:

The No. 17 of Kenseth and the No. 48 of Johnson just had way too much momentum at the time and so instead of wrecking the No. 16 of Biffle, Matt and Jimmie cut their cars to the left and went around Greg. Matt ends up winning the race, while Greg got shuffled back to fifth. That really was Greg’s race to lose and, unfortunately, he did. Little did we know, but what happened between Matt and Greg probably had a lot to do with what happened Tuesday morning coming to the checkers in the Daytona 500.

Friday night saw the Camping World Truck wreck-fest. I swear, if they would have tried one more green-white-checkered, they would have had to declare the pace truck the winner because it would have been the only thing left running.

Rookie John King had a fast truck and had it in the right place at the right time. That young man had never been to the track before he got his first visit to what I consider sacred ground – Victory Lane at Daytona. His teammate, Timothy Peters in the No. 17, finished second. So despite all the carnage and a very wicked hit that Miguel Paludo took into the inside wall off of Turn 4, Red Horse Racing was able to enjoy a 1-2 finish.

The Saturday race was pretty much a mirror of the Friday night Truck race. There were lots of wrecks and crazy racing. Danica got sent into the wall again, this time by her teammate. So that made two races in three days and two wrecked race cars. You just know she had to be getting frustrated.

The craziness continued right up to the checkered flag. Now just imagine yourself running 11th coming off of Turn 4 to the checkered flag and finding yourself in Victory Circle. Don’t laugh because it happened to James Buesher in his No. 30 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet. So just like the night before, we had a first-time winner at Daytona.

We evidently had been on borrowed time from Mother Nature, because while we had been down there we had pretty decent weather. That all disappeared about 10 a.m. on Sunday, right before I was getting ready to head to the Hollywood Hotel for the Daytona 500 prerace rehearsal.

The skies opened up and just never stopped. This gave us yet another first. For the first time in the history of the Daytona 500, it was postponed until Monday.

Initially the field was set to roll off at noon on Monday. However, Mother Nature evidently didn’t get the memo, text or tweet because she just wouldn’t stop raining. So at 10 a.m. ET on Monday, NASCAR announced that the race was going to be moved a second time — to a 7 p.m. Monday night start.

celebrities at nascar races

ALL-STAR RACE

Celebrities head to NASCAR tracks to fill their need for speed.

To say the least, we were all thrilled once we stopped and realized what that meant. The Daytona 500 was in prime time. For the first time, we were going to have Monday Night NASCAR Racing. I kept saying they needed to get Hank Williams Jr., Charlie Daniels or Brad Paisley into the recording studio that afternoon and cut us a new theme song.

We’ve all wondered what a Cup race of this magnitude would be like in prime time. So at 7 p.m. Monday, our premier event of our sport, the Great American Race, was on national TV in prime time. Trust me, none of us took it lightly. It was a gamble by NASCAR and by FOX.

As you have heard all of say this week, not only did the fans not let us down in the grandstands, but the fans at home watched in record numbers. Everything up to that point, as I said at the beginning, just seemed off kilter. It was leap year. The Daytona 500 was a week later than in the past. Wild wrecks, surprise winners — and now the Daytona 500 was on Monday night.

So the Cup drivers had been sitting around for 36 hours waiting for the Daytona 500 to start. They all knew with the rain, the racetrack was green due to all the rubber being washed away. The safe assumption was they all would take it easy in the early going and let things get into a flow.

Just like everything else up to that point, that plan went out the window. They come to the line to complete Lap 1 and all heck breaks loose and some of the sport's biggest names are taken out of contention.

That’s the double-edged sword for the fans that love pack racing and demanded the two-car tandem racing from last year go away. The cost of pack racing is if someone makes a mistake in that pack, it tears up a bunch of race cars. This statistic I find totally amazing and it’s times like this that I thank my lucky stars I am no longer a car owner.

Of the 122 cars and trucks that raced in NASCAR’s three top touring series events at Daytona – 90 of them were in an incident of some kind. Some were able to patch things up and return while some were done for the race. Car and truck team owners can only pray this trend doesn’t continue because the cost will become too great.

Just when you think you can say, OK the race is under way and nothing else really bizarre can happen – BAM, it does. Juan Pablo Montoya had been having problems with his car. He left pit road alone after a lengthy stop during a caution period and was trying to catch up to the back of the pack.

Something breaks on the car and sends Juan Pablo slamming up into a jet dryer that was up along the outside wall working on the track. Now a jet dryer normally holds 200 gallons of fuel, so when Juan Pablo hit, it punctured the tanks sending that fuel down the track and then that proceeded to ignite.

I just have to tell you, that is easily the wildest thing I have ever seen happen at a racetrack. Heck, that just might be the wildest thing I have seen happen in my life. Watching what happened and the fireball it created on the track, I figured our night was through.

By the grace of God, Juan Pablo and the driver of the jet dryer were able to escape the inferno. Then, the safety crews swung into action both inside and outside of the track. They got the fire out; they removed not only the remnants of Juan Pablo’s No. 42 car, but also what was left of the jet dryer.

It was an amazing accomplishment by a lot of people. The race was red-flagged. The drivers were allowed by NASCAR to get out of their cars. Some headed for the bathroom for a pit stop of another kind. Then Brad Keselowski made NASCAR and Twitter history by tweeting a picture of all the cars parked on the track.

For whatever reason, Brad had his cell phone in his car and it became a hot topic – yes, pun intended. As if that wasn’t enough drama, then Mother Nature started to send some signals that she still had a say in the matter.

Dave Blaney was leading the race when it was red-flagged. If the rains returned as we were beginning to see coming on the radar, then he was going to be declared the winner of the Daytona 500 because the race was already well past the halfway mark which signifies an official race.

You have to give NASCAR a lot of credit. After the pothole debacle a couple years ago, Daytona International Speedway committed millions of dollars to have the track resurfaced. As you saw in our broadcast, once the fire was put out, once the parts and pieces were cleared away, the track folks literally brought out boxes of Tide to clean the area affected by the fire and fuel.

Now granted, we are now into early Tuesday morning, but we were able to go back racing and run all 200 laps of the Daytona 500. The rain held off and that all but killed Dave Blaney's opportunity to win the race. The finish, just like every race we had seen for two weeks down there, was exciting.

There near the end, Kenseth had picked up his teammate Biffle, they dropped to the bottom and off they went. Unlike the qualifying race, Greg helped his teammate and stayed right there as his wingman. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running third. Now he was bad fast, but just didn’t have as much steam under the hood as those two Fords.

While Dale was able to pop out at the very end and take second place away from Greg, he simply didn’t have the horses left to catch and pass Matt Kenseth. So Matt rolled into Victory Lane on Tuesday morning at Daytona International Speedway, now as a two-time Daytona 500 winner.

It wasn’t until later that morning when I had gotten back to the motorcoach from the TV booth that I started to connect the dots. My old sponsor Tide helped clean the track after the fireball. My old sponsor Mountain Dew finished second with the No. 88 car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. The best part for me, though, was seeing my old number - the No. 17 that I had given to Jack Roush and Matt Kenseth at the end of 2000, again in Victory Lane in Daytona.

So for all the years I have been going to Daytona, I can easily say this Daytona 500 is literally and figuratively one for the record books.
 

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski

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