“This one is better than the first one.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. promised his fans that if he won the Daytona 500, he would join Twitter. Sunday night, the sport’s most popular driver made his first tweet.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. snapped a 55 race winless streak by winning the sport’s greatest price, the Daytona 500. He outlasted a 6 hour and 22 minute rain delay, the longest in 500 history. He held off undefeated Denny Hamlin and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski to claim his second 500 victory.
Earnhardt’s teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished 4th and 5th. 2013 Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 6th followed by Duel winner Matt Kesneth, rookie Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle, and Casey Mears.
“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.”
The race started with a very emotional moment as rookie Austin Dillon led the field to the green flag in the return of the No. 3 car to NASCAR’s premier series. Following the opening laps, rookie Kyle Larson and Greg Biffle ran into trouble early by cutting tires and hitting the wall.
Martin Truex Jr., who had qualified on the front row, was on a ride back to the front after starting in a back-up car. However, 31 laps in, his engine expired and made him the first victim of the 500. As the track was getting cleaned up, the rains hit Daytona and the race went into a red flag for 6 and a half hours before picking up with 162 laps left at 8:30 PM.
The rest of the first half of the race went very smooth with tight racing and lots of lead changes. However, after Paul Menard led the halfway lap, the race took a whole new path.
On lap 103, Tony Stewart, in his first points race since injuring his leg on August 5th, came to pit road with a fuel pressure problem and 15 laps later had to take his car to the garage. On lap 116, during green flag stops, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, who were among those in the lead, were charged with speeding on pit road and went a lap down. While coming in for a pass-through, Kahne sped up to avoid a spinning Michael Annett and NASCAR charged him with another penalty.
10 laps after Stewart went to the garage, Clint Bowyer’s engine blew up and his race came to an end. 5 laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his first lead of the race.
On lap 145, Kevin Harvick drifted up into Brian Scott and started a wreck that collected Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip, David Gilliland, Danica Patrick and damaged Austin Dillon. Patrick slammed the outside wall but all drivers were checked and released.
Under caution, Biffle took fuel only but Earnhardt took over after the restart. After the lead change, Dillon slides into Kyle Larson on lap 161 and collected Marcos Ambrose, Michael Annett, Kasey Kahne, and Brian Vickers.
Earnhardt led the restart but two laps after, the Roush teammates of Biffle and Carl Edwards took the lead. Briefly after the lead change, Trevor Bayne wrecked down the backstretch and brought out another caution.
With 12 to go, Earnhardt took the lead from Johnson on the restart. 3 laps later, Kurt Busch spun across the front stretch but with no caution. Following Busch’s spin, Dillon spun Ryan Newman and collected rookies Cole Whitt, Brian Scott, Parker Kligerman, and Justin Allgaier. The wreck also took out Terry Labonte, who is in his final Daytona 500.
The race was set for a green-white-checkered finish at the end. However, under caution, Earnhardt picked up a piece of bear bond on his grille. He made every effort to get it off but to no avail. He decided to race the final 2 laps with it on. He pulled away on the restart and led the final 2 laps and took the checkered flag as Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, Reed Sorenson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards wrecked behind him.
Earnhardt proceeded to turn the car around and wave to the fans before picking up Rick Hendrick on pit road. In Victory Lane, he thanked and congratulated every one of his crew members who helped him win his 3rd race for Hendrick Motorsports.
The Sprint Cup heads to Phoenix Raceway next week for race 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in charge of the Sprint Cup after the most popular driver took the race he has finished second in in 3 of the last 4 years.
“It’s our time. This is our year.”
Photo Credit: Nascar.com