DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The only star visible at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday night was Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stock car racing’s most popular driver led the last 17 laps of the Daytona 500, finishing off NASCAR’s longest day with one of the most emotional wins.
The third generation driver did something his famous father, seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, could never do – win two 500s.
Fans who sat through the longest single-day rain delay in NASCAR history were rewarded in a dramatic finish that saw Earnhardt keep his No. 88 Chevrolet ahead of several multi-car crashes in the final 100 laps.
The victory ended a streak of futility at Daytona, where he finished second in three of the previous four 500s.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt, who climbed from his car in Victory Lane and hugged every member of his Hendrick Motorsports crew. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good.”
Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had teammate Jeff Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.
Then an accident farther back in the field involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.
“We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart,” Earnhardt said. “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
The race officially ended under caution when several cars crashed coming off the fourth turn on the final lap. It didn’t affect Earnhardt, who was a car length ahead of Denny Hamlin when the yellow flag waved.
Keselowski was third, followed by Gordon in fourth and Johnson in fifth.
Rain that was expected to arrive at 4 p.m. was 90 minutes early, sending fans running for cover after 38 laps. The track was under a tornado warning for nearly an hour, with electronic bulletin board urging fans to seek shelter in their cars.
The threat was so real, the American Red Cross told people to fasten their seatbelts and turn on their engines during the storm so their air bags could deploy in a possible tornado.
While the track was crushed by rain and lightning, it escaped any other severe weather.
No fans were injured, the speedway said.
Crews worked for hours to dry the racing surface.
By 8 p.m. teams were called back to pit road. Engines fired at 8:33 p.m. and returned to the track two minutes later.
The 6-hour and 21-minute delay was the longest in a single day in NASCAR history.
When the race resumed, Kyle Busch, who started 37th, was the leader. Kasey Kahne was up to second, followed by Denny Hamlin in third, Brian Vickers in fourth and Paul Menard in fifth.
The green flag waved at Lap 47.
The cooler temperatures and clean racetrack made everyone even more aggressive after the long delay. It finally got out of control on Lap 145 when Kevin Harvick drifted up into Brian Scott’s car. Scott bounced into Aric Almirola, and that ignited a piled that involved a total of 13 cars.
“The cars are grippy and people are crazy,” Michael Waltrip said after his car was destroyed in the pileup. “They like to go.”
Also involved were: David Gilliland, Justin Allgaier, Danica Patrick, Paul Menard, Josh Wise, Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon and Parker Kligerman.
Dillon returned to be in the middle of the next multi-car crash 38 laps short of the finish. He moved up and turned Kyle Larson’s car around in the fourth turn. Kahne, Ambrose, Scott, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Ryan Newman, Michael Annett and Brian Vickers were swept into the melee.
Dillon wasn’t finished. He tapped Ryan Newman with six laps remaining. Newman bounced off Scott, Allgaier, Kligerman, Cole Whitt and Terry Labonte.
That set up a two-lap sprint to the checkered flag with Earnhardt leading the way, followed by Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.