Fire and Rain: Kenseth Wins Wild Daytona 500
Just when you thought you'd seen it all in the Daytona 500, the 54th running of the "Great American Race" will go down as the most bizarre of them yet.
In a race that saw a media sensation in the third female driver to ever start a Daytona 500, a day-long rain delay, an opening lap crash, a two-hour red flag for a jet fuel fire, and an overtime checkered flag that didn't fly until Tuesday morning, Matt Kenseth emerged as a two-time winner in the season-opening race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The final 40 laps were run well after midnight due to a nearly two-hour red flag after Juan Pablo Montoya plowed into a jet dryer on lap 158, touching off a fire that scorched the track and covered turn three in jet fuel.
Once racing resumed, Kenseth - the 2009 Daytona 500 winner and 2003 Sprint Cup champion - led the final 38 laps with a big push from his Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle and held off a final charge from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a green-white-checkered finish to win his 22nd-career Sprint Cup race.
It was the second win of Speedweeks for Kenseth, who also won in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
"I have to give a lot of credit to (engine builder) Doug Yates and the guys at the engine shop. We had great horsepower," said Kenseth. "I could get a pretty good start on the bottom and either Denny (Hamlin) or Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. could push me for awhile and then they just couldn't stay attached and I would get away from them just in time to get in front of Greg (Biffle) and the two of us together could make some unbelievable speed.
"I have to thank Greg. We worked together really good all day long. My guys did a great job. It was pretty cool to with the 150's and I never dreamed we would be standing here tonight"
It was truly a Daytona 500 no one could have dreamed up.
Delayed by rain from its normal Sunday start, the 54th Daytona 500 started nearly 30 hours later with a green flag at 7pm on Monday under the lights – the first ever Monday start for the Daytona 500.
The lead-up to the race was one of the most hyped in history, as standout open-wheel star Danica Patrick was set to become just the third female driver to start a Daytona 500, the first of ten Sprint Cup starts driving for Stewart-Hass Racing.
Once under green again, the race actually settled into a typical restrictor-plate pack race, with 14 lead changes through the first 100 laps. Martin Truex, Jr. led at halfway to collect a $200,000 bonus.
Lap 158 saw the caution flag fly for the seventh time when David Stremme lost an engine and spun out, bringing most of the field to pit road for scheduled fuel stops.
But no one could have ever predicted what happened next.
The impact sent a fireball from Montoya's car and hundreds of gallons of jet fuel pouring down the banking, which quickly ignited, touching off a conflagration that leaped 100 feet in the air and covered turn three in flames.
Safety crews tended to the flames while Montoya and the driver of the jet dryer were attended to. Both were not seriously hurt.
"I have hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer? I mean, no," said Montoya. "Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer. I felt a vibration and came in. They looked at everything and everything was ok and I still told them 'I think there is something broke' and I was coming back into the pits and the car just spun by itself."
The resulting clean up led to a two-hour red flag while the jet fuel was cleaned up and the track repaired.
During the red flag, the drivers were allowed to exit their cars and take a breather, and driver Brad Keselowski took the opportunity to pull out his cell phone and give updates to his fans on his Twitter account.
Among the first four cars who had no yet pitted, Dave Blaney found himself sitting in first place during the red flag, hoping to steal his first career Sprint Cup victory if the race was unable to continue.
Once the red flag was lifted, Blaney was forced to pit for fuel, handing the lead to Kenseth.
Back under green, Kenseth slid his no. 17 Ford Fusion up the track to pick up his teammate Biffle as they tried to use a two-car draft to pull away from the field.
That proved to be wishful thinking, as three more multi-car wrecks in the final laps brought out the yellow flag and put Earnhardt, Jr. and Hamlin right on their heels.
The 10th and final caution with two laps to go put the race into overtime, and at the green flag Kenseth and Biffle again paired up just ahead of Earnhardt, Jr. as the three pulled away over the next two laps.
Coming out of turn four on the final lap, Earnhardt, Jr. pulled out of line to the high side to make a run at Kenseth, but came up two-car lengths short.
"I would have liked to have won, but I told Greg (Biffle) I was going to push him on that last restart," said Earnhardt, Jr. "I pushed him. I thought he was waiting and waiting and waiting. It looked like he might have been trying to make a move on the back straightaway. But, nothing materialized there. Then we came off of four, and I kind of waited until the last minute for him his opportunity to pass Matt (Kenseth) and nothing was happening. So, I just pulled out and went around him."
Coming in sixth place was Paul Menard, followed by Kevin Harvick, polesitter Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Mark Martin.
11 cars failed to finish the event, including former Daytona 500 winners Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Trevor Bayne.
The victory concludes a dominating performance by the Roush Fenway Fords at Daytona Speedweeks that saw the team lead several practice sessions, sweep the front row on pole day and win the second Gatorade Duel qualifying race on Thursday with Kenseth. Kenseth became the first driver to win both a duel race and the 500 since 2004. It is Kenseth's second Daytona 500 win in the last four seasons.
* Denotes Rookie
Average Speed: 140.256 mph.
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