DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – First came a day of rain.
Next was a fiery crash between Juan Pablo Montoya’s race car and a safety truck.
And it ended with Matt Kenseth driving into Victory Lane early Tuesday morning.
Through the fire and rain, delays and destruction, and a 12:56 a.m. finish, Matt Kenseth won the most-memorable, and certainly most-bizarre, Daytona 500 of all time.
The calmest, quietest driver in the race kept his No. 17 Best Buy Ford out front for most of the calamity, including a green-white-checkered finish with Dale Earnhardt Jr. closing fast.
Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, protected his teammate during the stretch drive. He stayed glued to Kenseth’s rear bumper during two laps of overtime, allowing Kenseth to win by two car lengths.
Earnhardt passed Biffle at the finish line to finish second.
“I need to thank Greg Biffle,” Kenseth said. “He had a fast rocket. It was a matter of who got out front first.”
Biffle wanted to mount a charge with Earnhardt on the final lap, but he couldn’t catch him.
“I don’t know what happened,” Biffle said. “I couldn’t pull up on the 17. It was like he floored it and we couldn’t catch him.”
Said Earnhardt: “I would have liked to win. He (Biffle) was waiting and waiting and waiting. Nothing was happening so I pulled out to get what I could get.”
Denny Hamlin survived to finish fourth, followed by Jeff Burton in fifth, Paul Menard in sixth, Kevin Harvick in seventh, Carl Edwards in eighth, Joey Logano in ninth and Mark Martin in 10th.
The biggest race of the season was postponed a day by rain. The rain finally steered clear of the Daytona International Speedway, but not the delays. Montoya’s car suddenly veered into a safety truck pulling a Jet Dryer during a caution, triggering an explosion that resulted in a two-hour red-flag period to put out the fire and clean up the mess.
All that led up to a 34-lap dash – and three different crashes – to the finish line.
The race was pushed back 30 hours by two days of rain. It was the only time in the race’s 54-year history it was staged on a Monday.
Track officials originally wanted to throw the green flag at noon Monday, but constant rain in the morning – and the threat of more in the afternoon – led to a decision at 10:15 a.m. to delay the start to 7 p.m.
The race started at 7:13 p.m. The crashing started one minute later.
Elliott Sadler turned Jimmie Johnson into the outside wall as they came through the tri-oval after the first lap. Cars driven by David Ragan, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch also were involved.
“We’re just all trying to make our lane work. There was a lot of energy in the lane,” Johnson said. “I was kind of pushing the 78 (Regan Smith) a little bit and I felt some help from behind. [Sadler] just turned me around, sent me to the inside lane, back up to the outside lane. Then when I was sitting in the middle of the race track and I knew I was going to get drilled.”
Johnson and Bayne were former Daytona 500 winners.
The tough night for former Daytona 500 winners continued when Ryan Newman cut a tire and spun on Lap 13 and Jeff Gordon blew an engine on the 81st lap.
Greg Biffle led 35 of the first 99 laps, but Martin Truex Jr. got a push from Hamlin on Lap 100 along the backstretch to lead the midway point and collect a $200,000 bonus.
Even more significant was that lap made the race official.
A caution for David Stremme’s blown engine allowed the lead-lap cars to make a stop with 42 laps to go. Montoya felt a vibration, but his team sent him back on the track after looking under the car. As he got up to speed, the vibration got worse. When he tried to slow down, the car veered out of control and slammed into the safety truck that was cleaning up the mess left by Stremme.
The race car and the truck quickly caught fire, igniting the 200-gallon tank of kerosene used by the Jet Dryer.
“I told them when I left the pits something wasn’t right and I felt a weird vibration when we were with the pack,” Montoya said. “Every time I got in the gas, it vibrated. It just felt really strange. As I was talking on the radio the car just turned right.
“It burned the helmet and everything. My foot hurts. I was full on the brakes and when I hit, I hit driver’s side and my foot slipped onto the clutch and it scratched the top of my foot.
“I have hit a lot of thing, but a Jet Dryer? I mean, no.”
Montoya and the safety truck driver walked away from the crash, although the truck driver, Duane Barnes, was treated and released from Halifax Health Medical Center.
Dave Blaney was the leader during the red-flag period because he didn’t stop during the caution. His gamble the finish would be called off didn’t work when NASCAR got back to racing two hours later.
And that mean a resumption of crashing.
Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola, Casey Mears and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun coming through the tri-oval on Lap 178; Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Regan Smith, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards wrecked in the same place 10 laps later; and Stewart, Newman, Stenhouse, Blaney, David Reutimann, David Gilliland and Kyle Busch piled into each other coming through the tri-oval with four laps remaining.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – First came a day of rain.