It took until the wee hours of Monday morning, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored a dominating victory in the rain-delayed and crash-marred Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Although the race didn’t end until 2:41 a.m., Earnhardt seemed in control from the outset, as his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet easily controlled the proceedings. The victory was the second of the year for Earnhardt and the 25th of his career. Denny Hamlin finished second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Earnhardt’s teammate Jimmie Johnson and 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick.
At the finish, Austin Dillon’s car got airborne and hit the catch fence in an incredibly violent impact that ripped the engine out of his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Dillon was unhurt in the violent crash. After the races, DIS president Joie Chitwood said 13 fans in the stands were examined. Eight declined treatment, four were treated on site and one was taken to a local hospital and was in stable condition, Chitwood said.
"That scared the hell out of me, I’ll be honest with you," said Earnhardt. "I saw the whole thing happen. You’re looking in your mirror the whole last lap and saw Denny get turned. That’s kind of how it started. That was terrifying to watch. You know a wreck like that’s got such a high potential for someone to get injured. … You don’t want to see that happen."
The crash took away some of Earnhardt’s enthusiasm after his 10th victory in a restrictor-plate race.
"I’m more thankful that everybody’s OK than to be standing here in Victory Lane, that’s for sure," said Earnhardt.
He wasn’t the only one.
"It’s clearly like a video game out there, except it’s real life," said Jeff Gordon, who finished fifth in his final Daytona race.
"I’ve never seen anything like that," said Johnson of Dillon’s car going airborne. "And then how fast it stopped. … just a scary, scary moment."
Earnhardt, who was fastest in the opening round of practice, started from the pole after qualifying was rained out. The start of the race was delayed more than three hours by heavy Central Florida summer rain showers.
When the action finally got going near 11:30 p.m. ET, Austin Dillon jumped past Earnhardt and into the lead briefly before Earnhardt reassumed control out front.
Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano got collected in an nine-car crash on Lap 3 that began when David Gilliland moved down and hit Clint Bowyer on the frontstretch.
Up front, Earnhardt led 21 of the first 32 laps before being passed by teammate Jimmie Johnson.
At Lap 80, the halfway point of the race, Johnson led Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick.
On Lap 105, Kenseth went around at the exit of Turn 4, triggering an 11-car crash that took out several contenders, including Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr.
As the laps wound down, Earnhardt and Johnson continued to trade the lead, their Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets the clear class of the field. The teammates led 90 of the first 120 laps and looked stout.
With 12 laps to go, David Ragan spun on the backstretch to bring out a caution.
The track went green with nine laps to go, Earnhardt leading Johnson and Hamlin. But the cautions weren’t over, as Sam Hornish Jr. spun out with six laps left, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
Earnhardt broke into the lead with Hamlin close behind. And Earnhardt was able to hold on from there.