Jr Nation will be partying tonight in style as Dale Earnhardt Jr. held off Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski in the final dash to the checkered flag to win the Daytona 500. It marks his second career Daytona 500 after scoring the victory in 2004.
“To win this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, besides the championship,” he commented. “I didn’t know if I’d get to feel it again after the first – but it feels even better than the first because of how hard we worked to get here. This racecar was awesome. We showed all night long how strong a car we had and showed that we could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help from Jeff Gordon on that final restart and took care of it from there. This is amazing. I can’t believe it. I’ll never take it for granted. We’re two-time Daytona 500 champions.”
A late race caution would come out with seven laps to go after Austin Dillon got into teammate Ryan Newman to trigger a seven car wreck that collected Justin Allgaier, Brian Scott, Terry Labonte, Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman.
The field would take the green flag for a green-white-checkered and Earnhardt Jr. would get the run on the inside due to a push from teammate Jeff Gordon. He would then hold off the challenge from Denny Hamlin for the win as the caution waved for a wreck behind them.
As soon as he crossed the finish line, the excitement was evident with Earnhardt Jr. and the entire No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet team as screams erupted from everyone. The win means a lot for Earnhardt Jr. as he wanted to deliver crew chief Steve LeTarte a Daytona 500 victory as LeTarte moves off the pit box and into the broadcast booth in 2015.
“He builds a great crew,” Earnhardt Jr. commented. “These guys are so talented. He put a lot of good people around us to make us successful. They put a lot of work on this car – 11 coats of clear coat over the decals. The man hours and time and the sweat and blood, it’s so rewarding to take it to victory lane.”
LeTarte had been to Daytona 500 victory lane as a crew member on Jeff Gordon’s team, but never as a crew chief for a driver – till now.
This is the one,” LeTarte commented. “You work all winter long to come down here with your best equipment. If you’re going to win one, this is the one. He knew how badly I wanted this and drove a great race. Nothing more specialer than giving Rick another 500 win in my last year.”
The field took the initial green flag for the race shortly after 1:30 p.m. EST with Austin Dillon leading in the famed No. 3 car and saw a pair of cautions early. The first flew when Kyle Larson got into the wall and had a flat tire, while the second flew for Martin Truex Jr.’s motor expiring.
“Super disappointing,” Truex said, who was competing in his first points race for Furniture Row Racing. “I mean it’s definitely a tough break for the team. 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. The car was just so good and we were just riding around, biding our time, being patient and trying to get to the end of this thing.”
Truex Jr. qualified second for the race and was scheduled to start on the front row, though had to start the race in the rear due to being involved in a wreck in the Budweiser Duel.
Under the second caution at lap 39 at 2:13 p.m. EST, the 56th annual Daytona 500 was red-flagged as light rain fell from the sky.The race would remain under the red flag for six hours and 15 minutes as Daytona International Speedway officials waited out the rain and dried the track with the Air Titan drying system.
The race would resume at approximately 8:30 p.m. EST with Kyle Busch in the lead ahead of Kasey Kahne. From then on, there’d be multiple multi-car accidents that took out various contenders.
The first happened on lap 146 when Harvick came up the track a little, making contact with Brian Scott, who made Aric Almirola. Last year’s pole sitter Danica Patrick would receive major damage after her car shot across the track and made heavy contact with the outside front stretch retaining wall.
“I think more than anything I’m upset that the Go Daddy is torn up,” she commented. “I felt really good – best car I’ve had all Speedweeks and we could catch whoever and move around, make lanes, move forward – I felt things were going pretty well. It’s a bummer but that’s kind of the excitement of speedway racing in that anything can happen. Its unfortunate that it happened.”
Michael Waltrip, Justin Allgaier, Paul Menard, David Gilliland, Marcos Ambrose and Kasey Kahne were also collected in the wreck.
“I saw the cars get together ahead of me and coasting under control and someone ran into the back of me, not coasting under control and ran into the back of me,” Waltrip commented. “Luckily i have AAA and will file a claim and have it fixed up in a couple of months at Talladega.”
The second caution happened 14 laps later when Dillon slid up the track and got into the back of Larson, turning him into the wall and collecting others.
“Just kinda moving along. Got in the wall on lap 1 – blew a tire and spun around,” Larson recalled his day. “We were just riding along and we got in position for the lucky dog so we were racing hard there. I was just holding the middle line and Austin got shuffled up the track and got into me. Really long day; can’t wait to get to phoenix and hopefully do better.”
Michael Annett, Kahne, Brian Vickers and Bobby Labonte also got a piece of the wreck.
On that restart, Earnhardt Jr. was able to grab the lead and that’s when the strength of the No. 88 car started to slow as he led all the way till the next caution flew at lap 183 for Trevor Bayne getting loose and making heavy contact with the backstretch wall. It was under that caution that his Daytona 500 winning chances start to soak in.
“I’m enjoying particular pieces of it,” Dale Jr. said over the radio. “But the entire experinece is driving me crazy. It’s hard to be excited, a little nervous; this is for the big prize.”
Earnhardt Jr. was once again able to grab he lead on the restart and led all the way till the incident with seven laps to go. Under that caution as the field was getting ready to restart, a piece of bare bond (black tape) flew up from the track surface and stuck to the front grill of Earnhardt’s car. Earnhardt Jr. tried to use the pacecar to get it off, but wasn’t able to. However, it didn’t matter as he was still able to cruise to the victory.
The caution flew as the field came to the checkered when Kevin Harvick slid up and got into Kyle Busch, collecting Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards.
After winning both the Sprint Unlimited and the Budweiser Duel, Hamlin would finish second in the Daytona 500.
“There’s a lot to be disappointed about – but there’s a lot to be happy about,” Hamlin commented. “With not having a spotter on that last green-white-checkered, I didn’t have the information to try and back up to the next guy and all. I was just trying to stay out of trouble.”
Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammmates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
“I’m so excited for Hendrick Motorsports right now. Congratulations to Dale – I know how excited he is,” Gordon commented afterwards. “I don’t know what happened when the rain went away and the track dried. Everybody’s brains flipped to dthis being a shootout and going all over. It was craziness. We just got through some wrecks and then had some things go our way with good pushes and picking the right lanes.
“On that final restart, I gave Jr a great push when we took the green. The 99 got to my bumper and then got sucked off of me so I was just a sitting duck. I saw Jimmie go three wide behind me, which propelled me forward.”
Matt Kenseth finished sixth, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon and Casey Mears.
While some drivers experienced success, both Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart were left disappointed. Bowyer would blow his motor at lap 128 while Stewart spent multiple laps behind the wall with fuel pick-up issues.
““Just a frustrating day. Just a long day with the rain,” Bowyer commented. “If it was going to blow up, it should’ve blown up four hours ago. Its just disappointing. Everybody is out there having fun and we broke our toy.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix International Speedway next weekend.