DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. survived the longest rain delay in Daytona 500 history and a spate of accidents to score a hugely popular and emotional win at Daytona International Speedway Sunday night.
Earnhardt dominated the final third of the race to score his second Daytona 500 victory and win for the first time in 55 races.
The third-generation driver prevailed in a green-white-checkered finish to bring home NASCAR’s biggest prize. Second was Denny Hamlin in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, making it three Hendrick Chevrolets in the top five.
After waiting a decade to win his second Daytona 500, Earnhardt was understandably jubilant afterward.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport," said Earnhardt, who had finished second three times in the previous four Daytona 500s. "Aside, obviously, from accepting the trophy for the championship. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again. And it feels just as good, if not better, than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all those years, and wondering why and what we needed to do."
"I thought for sure we’d wreck more cars," said runner-up Hamlin, winner of two preliminary races during Daytona Speedweeks. " … Dale just played it perfectly."
"Congrats to Junior," added Gordon. "The world is right. … It’s going to be a great 2014 season."
The race was rain delayed for more than 6 hours after heavy thunderstorms and a tornado warning hit the Central Florida area mid-afternoon.
Early on, things looked good.
Rookie Austin Dillon started from the pole in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, the first appearance for that car number in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race since the death of Dale Earnhardt here in 2001.
Second-qualifier Martin Truex Jr. was the first mechanical casualty of the day, losing an engine after an oil pump belt broke on Lap 31.
"The car was super-fast today and I went to bed last night thinking that this was my best shot ever to win the Daytona 500 and really felt that way — even today," said Truex. " … Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be."
While the fluid from Truex’s engine was being cleaned up, the skies opened up with NASCAR red flagging the race after 38 laps. Little could anyone have imagined the red flag period would last six hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds.
Finally, the race went green again on Lap 47, with the JGR Toyotas of Hamlin and Kyle Busch quickly reasserting their superiority, along with Keselowski’s Team Penske Ford and Paul Menard in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
At the midway point, Menard led Johnson, Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Keselowski, but just three laps later, three-time series champ Tony Stewart pitted with fuel pressure woes, which would eventually send him to the garage after 118 laps. Another contender, Clint Bowyer, made it just 127 laps until he lost a motor.
On Lap 131, Earnhardt took his first lead of the race, and then, chaos.
Coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 145, Harvick drifted up into Brian Scott, who went into Aric Almirola in the outside lane, triggering a 12-car crash that took out Danica Patrick, Menard, Austin Dillon, Michael Waltrip and David Gilliland, among others.
"Man, what the hell happened?" Patrick asked her crew after hitting the frontstretch wall head on. She was not injured.
Under caution, Greg Biffle took fuel only and led the race off pit road ahead of Earnhardt, Edwards, Johnson and Kenseth.
The green flew on Lap 154 and Earnhardt rode the bottom and Biffle on top, neck and neck for the lead.
On Lap 162, Dillon got loose and set off a 10-car crash in Turn 4, this one snaring Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne in the mix.
Earnhardt led on the Lap 169 restart, he and Biffle again side by side for the lead, with the Ford going back to the lead on Lap 173. Two laps later, Biffle’s teammate, Carl Edwards, pushed past and into the lead.
The battle intensified up front as the laps wound down, with Trevor Bayne crashing on the backstretch on Lap 184, just moments after Earnhardt had retaken the lead.
On the Lap 188, Earnhardt pulled down ahead of Johnson, the two Hendrick Chevrolets leading.
Then, Kurt Busch spun on the frontstretch on Lap 191, but the track stayed green, with Gordon joining Johnson and Earnhardt in the lead mix, along with Harvick.
A seven-car crash took place on Lap 194, Dillon turning his RCR teammate Newman, who had checked up in front of him. The accident also took out Swan Racing teammates Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman.
Under caution, Earnhardt got a piece of Bear Bond — an adhesive used to patch damaged fenders — stuck on his grille.
That set up a two-lap shootout to win it all. Earnhardt got a good restart, with Keselowski behind him, Earnhardt leading after taking the white flag and holding on to win as the field crashed behind him.