After weeks of buildup and more than a 24-hour delay to its biggest event of the year, NASCAR proved Monday evening, and into early Tuesday morning, that they’re in the business of great theater, even if that sometimes involves theater of the absurd.
From the opening lap to the final few feet before the checkered flag, drama reigned on so many levels of the Daytona 500, though in seemingly fitting fashion it was one of NASCAR’s least dramatic superstars left celebrating in victory lane.
Matt Kenseth held off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle over a final two-lap green-white-checkered shootout finish to win the 55th running of the Daytona 500.
It was the second career Daytona 500 victory for Kenseth, who won in a rain shortened Daytona 500 in 2009. The race was delayed for two hours because of a safety truck crash and jet fuel fire and ended just before 1 a.m. It was extended two laps from the its scheduled distance because of a late caution.
“It feels great,” Kenseth said. “We even went overtime a little bit since we didn’t quite go the whole distance the first time we won it. We had a really fast car all day and overcame a lot of adversity and problems with the car that we figured out. We had a great pit stop at the end that put us into position. It feels great. I wasn’t expecting to win when I woke up this morning so it feels good to be sitting here.”
Rain on Sunday forced NASCAR to postpone the event, originally to a scheduled noon start on Monday. That noon start was then pushed back to a 7 p.m. start Monday evening.
And after all the waiting it didn’t take long after the green flag the mayhem to begin. Contact on the first lap set off a multi-car wreck that collected five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick, making her Daytona 500 debut.
Johnson was done for the day, setting for a 42nd place finish in the 43-car field.
“I’m just really bummed-out for this whole Lowe’s team,” Johnson said. “To work as hard as everyone did at Hendrick Motorsports to get this Lowe’s Chevrolet and to have it barely complete two-and-a-half miles of green flag racing is pretty sad. Disappointed, but nothing I can do about it now. We’ll just go on and go to Phoenix and set our marks on winning that race.”
Patrick was able to return to the event and log laps, eventually finishing 38th in her Sprint Cup Series debut.
“It’s disappointing,” Patrick said. “I would have loved to have gotten a great finish. I would have loved to have been able to run on the lead lap there at the end. I feel back for disappointing my fans who were cheering for me; especially going out so early. But I’ll come back stronger.”
The race came to a screeching halt with 40 laps remaining when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a truck towing a jet dryer around the track. The crash set off a raging fire turn three of the track that led to a two-hour race delay for track repairs.
Montoya and the individual driving then track safety truck towing the jet dryer both walked away from the wild incident unhurt.
“Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer,” Montoya said. “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.”
NASCAR journeyman driver Dave Blaney was in the lead when the race was under red flag for the incident and for a time it seemed NASCAR might not be able to return the track to a safe condition and Blaney – driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing – was going to be declared the race winner. But Blaney’s hopes to win were dashed when the race resumed after the long delay and his team had to immediately go to the pits and surrender the top spot.
Kenseth and Biffle were in control when the race went back to green. Following the final restart it looked as if second place running Biffle and third place Earnhardt would mount a challenge to draft past Kenseth, the tandem-charge never materialized.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Doug Yates and the guys at the engine shop,” Kenseth said. “We had great horsepower. I could get a pretty good start on the bottom and either Denny or Dale 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 and the two of us together could make some unbelievable speed. I have to thank Greg. We worked together really good all day long. He had a really fast car all day as well.”
Earnhardt was left going by Biffle out off the final corner but without enough time to mount a challenge on Kenseth before the start/finish line.
“I was kind of surprised how it played out,” Earnhardt said. “[Kenseth] just had such an awesome car. [Biffle] had a great car too. I was just kind of pushing Greg, and I had told him before the restart that I was just going to push him. Try to help him get the lead; then we would see what would happen after that. But, we couldn’t ever get to Matt. So, I kind of waited until the last minute to get to the last minute Greg would have an opportunity to pass him. It wasn’t materializing, so I just pulled out to try to get the second spot if I could. I thought it was a great race.”
Said Biffle: “Maybe I wish I would have tried to get by him then earlier, but I thought it would be coming down to the end and we would both be pushing for the win. I wanted to be locked on the [Kenseth’s] bumper, kind of like [Earnhardt] passed me coming to the line. That’s what I wanted to try and do to the [Kenseth], but I couldn’t get to him. He had a really good car, but I’m just so happy for this team to start out the season like this.”
Kenseth is the ninth driver to win multiple Daytona 500′s. The only other active full-time driver in the series with multiple victories in the Daytona 500 is Jeff Gordon with three.
In his fourth Daytona 500, Middletown native Joey Logano had three close calls over the final 30 laps and held on to finish ninth.
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