Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins rain delayed Daytona 500
A decade after his first Daytona 500 victory, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. claimed his second win in NASCAR’s most prestigious event, overcoming wrecks, debris and one of the longest rain delays in the history of the Great American race.
Earnhardt, Jr. used a push from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to pull out to the front on the last restart and then held off Denny Hamlin to win his second-career Daytona 500 in Sunday night’s rain-delayed crash-filled season-opener for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Gordon and Jimmie Johnson
Earnhardt led the final 18 laps including a final three-lap shootout following a caution flag, taking the checkered flag just as yet another multi-car pileup broke out behind him, ending the race under caution more than 10 hours after it first began.
It was Earnhardt, Jr.’s 20th-career Sprint Cup victory and his first since winning at Michigan in June of 2012, snapping a 57-race winless drought and automatically securing him a berth in NASCAR’s new championship points battle.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in the sport, aside from obviously accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “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.
“I know I’m the first feature winner and we are in the Chase. I’m pumped up man. Trust me man we are going to have a blast this year.”
It was ten years ago that Earnhardt, Jr. scored his first Daytona 500 victory in 2004, three years after his father lost his life in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 – a race where Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jr. finished first and second driving cars owned by Earnhardt, Sr.
Earnhardt, Sr. himself was legendary at Daytona, struggling for years to add the Daytona 500 to his list of accomplishments only to see his hopes dashed again and again before finally snapping the losing streak in 1998.
“You win other races. Other good things happen to you in life. But this is a unique feeling. It only comes with this particular win,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “We went through some pretty bad lows. They're still there. I know when I drove down that front straightaway….it seems like everybody that was here was cheering. I know we don't have every fan out there, but it was certainly a happy crowd. I really feed off of that. That is as key to the moment, enjoying the moment as anything. That's as key to the moment as going to Victory Lane, seeing your crew, seeing Rick, seeing my girlfriend.
“All those moments where you see joy in someone else's face during this evening, seeing all that in all those fans, you feed off of that so much. You'll never forget that, just looking up into the grandstands, seeing all those people cheering, so happy.”
Sunday’s race began under threatening skies as the race got underway just after 1:30 pm, but the field managed to complete only 46 laps before rain started pelting the track, bringing out the red flag.
After a rain delay of more than six hours, racing resumed just after 8:30 pm, and with the rain washing off the rubber build-up and cooler temperatures making for a fast racetrack, wrecks were bound to happen.
And Daytona would not disappoint.
On lap 146, the first multi-car crash broke out after Brian Scott made contact with Kevin Harvick, sending him up into Aric Almirola and touching off a 13-car wreck that collected Waltrip, polesitter Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick.
Just 10 laps after racing resumed, another crash took out 10 cars after Dillon got into fellow rookie contender Kyle Larson, resulting in a wreck that swept up Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Brian Vickers.
Dillon’s night then went from bad to worse as he wrecked his teammate Ryan Newman with five laps to go, totaling seven more cars.
The ensuing caution set up a final three-lap dash to the checkers for Earnhardt, Jr., but just one lap before the restart, Earnhardt, Jr. caught a piece of debris on his front grill, threatening to overheat his Chevrolet.
Seemingly unhindered by the debris, Earnhardt, Jr. shot past Keselowski on the restart with a push from Gordon, and held the top spot for the first lap before Hamlin dropped under Keselowski to take second with one lap to go.
As the leaders came through the tri-oval on the final lap, Hamlin looked to the outside as Earnhardt, Jr. moved up to block, but another multi-car crash broke out behind them to bring out the caution, ending the race under yellow moments before Earnhardt, Jr. crossed the stripe.
Hamlin’s runner-up finish cost him a chance to score a Daytona sweep after winning last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited and one of Thursday’s two Budweiser Duel qualifying races.
Hamlin ran much of the final half of the race in the dark after his in-car radio stopped working, cutting him off from his spotter and his crew in the final laps.
“I'm so 50/50 on whether I'm pissed off or I'm happy,” said Hamlin. “Any other year I probably would have been like jumping up and down. We can hardly finish these races much less have a shot at a victory.
“Track position was so important, I couldn't come in for a radio change when it went totally dead. You know, I'll be happy tomorrow, I think. But right now a little disappointed.”
Keselowski came up short with a third-place effort, but still posted his career-best Daytona 500 finish, losing out to the man who gave him his big break driving for JR Motorsports in 2007
“Best car I ever had here at Daytona. Proud of it,” said Keselowski. “Got to the lead from the very back twice. Didn't quite pull it off the third time. Didn't get the win, which is most disappointing as a racecar driver. You don't get cars like that all the time, at least most of us don't.
“We had the opportunity tonight. Came up a little bit short there on that last restart, but really proud of the effort and happy for my friend.”
DALE EARNHARDT, JR., QUOTES
DOES YOUR SECOND DAYTONA 500 WIN TAKE ON EVEN MORE MEANING CONSIDERING THE JOURNEY YOU’VE TRAVELED OVER THE PAST SIX YEARS?
“Yeah, I think so. Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in the sport, aside from obviously 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 funning second all those years and wondering why and what we needed to do. I’ve got to get my head together. I’ve got to thank National Guard and Diet Mountain Dew and all our sponsors; Kelly Blue Book, Chevy, and Sprint and my team. This race car was awesome. We showed them there night long how good a car we had and it’s because of these guys right here putting it together in the shop. We could fight off battles after battles. We got a little help from Jeff (Gordon) to get away on that restart and tried to take care of it from there. This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted because this just doesn’t happen twice, let alone once. I’m so thankful. Thanks to all my fans out there for supporting. We pretty much might be in the Chase? We get that off our chest and we are two-time Daytona 500 champion.”
WHAT DID YOU DO ON THAT LAST RESTART? WHAT DID YOU HAVE TO DO TO KEEP THE LEAD?
IT SEEMED LIKE THERE WERE A COUPLE OF TIMES YOU WOULD GET SIDE-BY-SIDE WITH FOLKS AND MAYBE GET BACK A LITTLE BIT, BUT YOU WERE ABLE TO BATTLE BACK. WHAT WAS THE DIFFERENCE FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
YOU MENTIONED THE CREW BEFORE YOU TALKED TO ANYBODY YOU GOT AND YOU WENT AND PERSONALLY THANKED AND HUGGED EVERYONE OF THEM:
YOU ARE THE FIRST ONE TO QUALIFY FOR THE CHASE:
STEVE LETARTE, CREW CHIEF, NO. 88 NATIONAL GUARD CHEVROLET SS – RACE WINNER
CAN YOU EVEN PUT INTO WORDS WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU AS A CREW CHIEF AND FOR YOUR FAMILY TO GET YOUR FIRST DAYTONA 500 WIN?
“Oh, no; this is the one. You work all winter long at the shop and come down here with your best equipment. They built a great race car and everybody worked really hard. Dale drove a great race. But if you’re going to win one, this is the one you want to win. I’m glad. He knew I really wanted to win this one and he drove a great race. There is nothing better I could think of in the world than to give Mr. Hendrick a 500 win in the last year.”
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