February 24, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
JR. Achieves Second Daytona 500 Victory
In one of the most popular victories in Daytona 500 history, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was able to end “The Longest Day” with his second victory in Daytona.
In a race that started at 1 p.m., was stopped for 6 hours, 42 minutes and 21 seconds because of heavy rain, and resumed after 8:30 p.m., Earnhardt rewarded the massive crowd that endured the long wait with what they had waited for the past 10 years – a chance to celebrate a Dale Jr. victory in the Daytona 500.
The victory was special for many reasons. Earnhardt is easily NASCAR’s most popular driver, especially at NASCAR’s other “Big Race” – the Brickyard 400. Earnhardt has never won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but after his win on Sunday night that is another big prize that awaits him at the end of July.
And with NASCAR’s new “Chase for the Championship” format that rewards winning above all else, he becomes the first driver to make the 16-driver “Chase Grid.”
For those fans that arrived at Daytona as early as 5 a.m., a victory by Dale Jr. was more than worth the wait.
It was Earnhardt’s second Daytona 500 victory and came 10 years after his first in 2004. And it was also his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win since Michigan International Speedway on June 17, 2012.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver who is easily NASCAR’s most popular driver defeated Denny Hamlin’s Toyota in a race that ended with a massive crash behind the lead group of drivers.
This was a race that had almost everything, including some late race drama after a six-car crash in the third turn that started when the Richard Childress Racing duo of Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman made contact in the third turn. By the time it was over Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, Cole Whitt and Terry Labonte were all involved in the carnage with just six laps to go.
At the time of the crash, Earnhardt was in front ahead of Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.
Earnhardt, however, had some debris off Newman’s car get stuck in the opening of the grille.
It didn’t matter because over the final two laps of green-flag racing Earnhardt could not be denied.
"Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn't know if I would ever get to feel that again, but it feels just as good. It's not better than the first because of how hard we tried year after year running second.
“This race car was awesome. We showed all night long how good a car we had and it's these guys right here put it together in the shop. We were fighting off battles after battles. We got a little hookup from Jeff (Gordon) on the last restart and just took care of it from there.
"This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening. I'll never take this for granted, man, because it doesn't happen twice, let alone once."
Earnhardt’s Chevrolet defeated Hamlin’s Toyota followed by Brad Keselowski’s Ford. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet was fourth, followed by last year’s Daytona 500 winner and another Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson in fifth.
“There is a lot to be disappointed about but a lot to be happy about,” said Hamlin, who had no radio communication with his crew over the last 150 laps. “I didn’t have the spotter to help guide me so I was winging it trying to spot all six corners by myself. It was a good run but I’m disappointed.”
Keselowski had a really fast Ford and scored his second career top-five Daytona 500 finish.
“I actually thought we were going to win,” Keselowski said. “I couldn’t get any help from behind and that is all she wrote.”
During the daytime portion of the race, Earnhardt was in front of the field when he led a group of cars onto pit road on Lap 34 for a pit stop.
And then came the rain with all the cars brought down pit road on Lap 38 when the Red Flag flew to stop the race for 6 hours, 22 minutes, 41 seconds.
After running under yellow to help dry the race track, racing finally resumed on Lap 46 with Kyle Busch’s Toyota in front. That began a nice sequence of racing where Busch, Hamlin and Keselowski took turns leading the race.
Green flag pit stops began on Lap 72 with Jeff Gordon coming down pit road. Kasey Kahne spun exiting the pits after his stop, but was able to get back up to speed. But the biggest mistake came when front-runner Kyle Busch left pit lane while the air gun was still attached. Busch was assessed a stop-and-go penalty for leaving the pits with equipment still attached to the car.
He served the penalty on Lap 79 and returned to the track in 40th place and without a drafting partner, was in jeopardy of getting lapped.
Danica Patrick was in front of the field of the Daytona 500 for the second year in a row but she had not made her pit stop yet and would lose the lead once she came into the pits on Lap 88. Tony Stewart, her team owner, also followed her onto pit road along with Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman.
After the pit stops were completed, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was in front in the No. 66 Toyota.
Paul Menard was in front at the halfway point – Lap 100 – and that meant it was an official race, even if more rain would hit the track.
Last year’s Daytona 500, Johnson, was in the lead in front of Earnhardt as the race continued to Lap 111 without a caution since the green flag waved after the rain delay.
Another round of green flag pit stops began on Lap 114 as the race cruised along at a rapid pace after the long red flag.
Earnhardt shot to the lead by taking the low line at the start/finish line bringing the large crowd of race fans that had endured a very long, wet and tedious day, a chance to cheer for NASCAR’s favorite driver.
Just 50 miles of racing remained and Edwards continued to lead but was being hotly pursued by Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt.
Bayne brought out the fifth yellow flag when he crashed on the backstretch on Lap 184.
The green flag flew on Lap 188 with Earnhardt in the lead followed by teammate Johnson. Harvick was third, followed by another Hendrick car driven by three-time Daytona 500 winner Gordon with Hamlin in fifth.
Kurt Busch spun off the fourth turn and was able to keep the car from hitting a wall and into the grass as green flag racing continued. He was able to bring the car down pit lane without a yellow flag with Earnhardt still in front with 10 laps to go to set up the frantic finish.
“There is not shortage of storylines this year,” Keselowski said. “Dale is a very popular driver. He’s more popular than a number. The great thing about Dale winning today is I followed him and I think it was something this particular race there was no drama, no feeling that anyone can say there was voodoo magic wishing he won.
“He deserved this one the most.”
Earnhardt won the race with an average speed of 145.290 miles per hour in a race that was officially 3 hours, 26 minutes and 29 seconds. Of course, it was spread out over a 10-1/2-hour period.
“This has to be one of the hardest racing Daytona 500s ever,” Keselowski said. “The actual racing was great. I hope they don’t change this package.”
It was an incredibly exciting race with the exception of the long rain delay. There were 42 lead changes among 18 drivers, and Earnhardt was the best driver on the track in a highly competitive race by leading six times for 54 laps. Paul Menard was second in laps led when he was in front three times for 29 laps.
There were seven cautions for 39 laps but the race also included a 98-lap stretch from green flag racing from the start of the night portion until the latter quarter of the contest.
It was a popular victory for almost everyone in the sport, even those who had to weigh their disappointment of coming up short.
“It's big for a lot of reasons,” Hamlin said of Earnhardt. “As far as the race win, it's obviously very significant, any Earnhardt wins at Daytona...”
Earnhardt promises that he is going to enjoy this victory for a long time.
“You don’t get to celebrate this every week so I’m going to enjoy it as much as possible,” Earnhardt said. “You don’t know if you will ever get to experience another one.”
The smile has returned to Earnhardt’s face. It’s almost as if the weight of the sport has been lifted off his shoulders.
“It’s not a weight when you are able to deliver; it’s a weight when you aren’t able to deliver,” Earnhardt said of the big win. “I don’t know if I realize how big of a deal it is, but I know I have a lot of fans that are really happy and enjoyed what I did tonight, and brag about it over the water cooler.
“It’s going to be a fun Monday for everyone in ‘Junior Nation.’”
Although Earnhardt doesn’t technically qualify as a “Brickyard Legend” because he has never won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he is certainly one of the most popular drivers that annually contests the difficult 400 miles at the Brickyard.
His second Daytona 500 win could certainly give him “honorary status” when it comes to the NASCAR greats the make Indianapolis one of their favorite spots during the summer.
It was a great day – and night – for Earnhardt, but that certainly can’t be said for the other drivers with a strong connection to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Patrick, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year who became the first female driver ever to win an IndyCar Series race with her 2008 win at Twin Ring Motegi, led one time for two laps in the race but was taken out in a massive crash on Lap 145.
After 98-straight laps of green flag racing a major crash coming off the fourth turn on Lap 145 saw Patrick’s Chevrolet get onto the apron, and then rocket across the track with a head-on collision into the wall. The crash also involved Kevin Harvick, Menard, Almirola, Michael Waltrip, Parker Kligerman, David Gilliland, Austin Dillon, Brian Scott, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Justin Allgaier, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Josh Wise.
Patrick’s destroyed race car slid across the grass before coming to a stop in a heap of smoke.
“What the hell happened?” Patrick asked her crew over the radio.
Patrick tried to sum up on the long day after she was checked and released from the infield care center.
“I don’t know, it feels like they are all pretty hard unfortunately,” Patrick said of her hit. “I think more than anything I am just upset that the GoDaddy car felt really good and it was the best car that I had all SpeedWeeks. It seemed like we could catch whoever and it seemed like we could move around, make lanes and just move around and move forward at the end of the day. I felt like everything was going pretty well; so it’s just upsetting, you know.
“It’s a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident. But that is the kind of thing that happens and I appreciate everyone sticking around and watching, and we will go get them at Phoenix.”
Two-time Brickyard winner and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., who was competing in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup points race since he suffered a badly broken leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa on August 5, had a variety of issues with the fuel pickup in his Chevrolet and finished 35th, 26 laps down.
Reigning Brickyard winner Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., was involved in several crashes and finished 22nd, one lap down. Jamie McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard winner, finished 14th, one position behind 2003 Brickyard champion Kevin Harvick.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon finished fourth and his teammate, four-time Brickyard winner and six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, finished fifth.
“Well I know it’s not a win for our Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, but we have not made it to the end here in quite a while, so I think it just shows what this No. 24 team is capable of when we are at the end,” Gordon said. “We made a great effort at it. Congrats to (Dale Earnhardt) Junior, the world is right, right now. Dale, Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014 that is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one. I had some great pushes from Jimmie Johnson and some other guys out there. That is what it takes if you are going to either win it or be in contention to win it. We had some good things go our way today, pit stops, everything. The whole team just did an awesome job all winter long and down here all week.”
With three Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top five, there was quite a reason for excitement and optimism from the season-opening performance.
“Oh my God, I am so excited for Hendrick Motorsports right now,” Gordon said. “Congratulations to Dale, that is so cool and I know how excited his fans are. Rick Hendrick, another Daytona 500 victory. Three Hendrick cars in the top five is spectacular. You know, I don’t know what happened when the rain went away and the track dried, but everybody’s brains just flipped over to this is a shootout. It was unbelievable the kind of racing there was. Two and three wide, bump drafting and just craziness. There for a while we didn’t have great track position and I was just hanging on and trying not to wreck and seeing other guys doing the same thing.
“We got through some wrecks and then we started having some things going our way. We got good pushes, good lines and my spotter Eddie did a great job. Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and this team just did an amazing job and gave me a great car at the end of the show.
“I gave Junior a great push when we took the green, so we got a good start. The 99 (Carl Edwards) got to my bumper and we got kind of going, but he got sucked-off of me or whatever happened, and I was just a sitting duck at that point. I saw Jimmie Johnson go three-wide behind me and my lane started going backwards. But he got to me and gave me a huge shove, and the 11 (Denny Hamlin) pulled down in front of me and we just went. At that point I am thinking maybe we can get to Junior, but when I got to third I thought anything in the top three at that point without a wrecked car would be a great finish. We wanted to win and we had a car that could, but we are also excited to see Junior win.”
Johnson led two times for 15 laps and appeared in contention for victory before the mad scramble at the end.
“If you can be the lead car and control the lanes like Junior did there in the closing laps, that is the spot to be in,” Johnson explained. “It’s not an easy job by any means, but I was trying to get in that position and got in the outside lane. I got to the head of the outside lane and it just never really materialized and I slid back some. A solid performance and just real happy for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.”
Keselowski, the winner of the Inaugural Indiana 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis, was third.
“Points days don’t mean anything anymore,” Keselowski said. “That is the great thing about this format. There is no good points day as far as I am concerned. It is win or nothing else matters, especially when you come to Daytona.”
Keselowski didn’t get to celebrate the victory, but he did get to see his long-time friend Earnhardt achieve one of the greatest accomplishments of his career.
“I thought he did a great job,” Keselowski said of the race winner. “If there is ever a guy who is due, it is a guy that has finished second three of the last four years. That is really saying something. Hopefully that will work out for me at Watkins Glen.
“He has been right there and knocked on the door. He runs restrictor plates as an elite driver and is probably in the top-three. He hasn’t got the win when he probably deserved it a couple times due to a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due and today was his day. I am happy for him and happy for all those guys. There are a lot of great people over there on that team. I really like Steve and Dale obviously gave me my big opportunity, and is probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate Joey Logano, and his spotter is my neighbor. There is a lot of cross-pollination there. It is good for them. I am happy for him.”
NASCAR has been riding a wave of change since making major announcements with changes to qualifying, The Chase and the way it will enforce the rules. But NASCAR is a sport built on heroes and there is no hero more popular than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning the Daytona 500.
“There’s nothing better than to see NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver wins the biggest race in the sport,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “It’s a really big deal.”
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