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Caraviello: Steady Kenseth restores order to crazy Daytona 500

February 28, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Steady Kenseth restores order to crazy Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Appropriately, in the end the car was spewing water, a little geyser emitting from the vehicle's overflow valve. Because there's something about a battle with the elements that brings out the best in Matt Kenseth at the Daytona 500.

Just as he did three years ago, the Roush Fenway driver claimed NASCAR's biggest race on a day when the weather -- among other things -- was as staunch an opponent as anything he would face on the track at Daytona International Speedway. The first Daytona 500 to ever be pushed back a day because of rain turned into the first Daytona 500 to ever start under the lights, which turned into a six-hour marathon that featured everything from big crashes to a car colliding with a jet dryer.

"It's really hard to win these races. The older you get and the more you race, you realize how hard it is, and you really try to enjoy all those moments."

--MATT KENSETH

But in the end it was NASCAR's Mr. Steady, the unflustered Midwesterner, who overcame it all and streaked ahead of the field in a green-white-checkered finish. With some help from teammate Greg Biffle -- who willingly or not served in the role of blocker, and kept an onrushing Dale Earnhardt Jr. at bay -- Kenseth backed up his victory in Thursday's second 150-mile qualifying event to win a long, eventful Daytona 500 that was supposed to begin Sunday afternoon and didn't end until the early hours of Tuesday morning.

"Been a long day," said Earnhardt Jr., who wound up second. "Been a long night."

Where to begin? There was the rain, which delayed the start of a highly anticipated Daytona 500 for a day and half. There was the happy accident of NASCAR's marquee event going green in prime-time television, generating a kind of electricity and anticipation the event had never seen. There was a crash on the second lap that took out five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and sent newcomer Danica Patrick 64 laps down. And then there was the stunning, shocking, frightening sight of Juan Montoya's car going out of control under caution and striking a jet dryer, which ignited a massive fire that required more than two hours to clean up.

And it all was the capper to a wild and unpredictable Speedweeks, which included surprise victories by John King in the Camping World Truck opener on Friday and James Buescher in the Nationwide Series kickoff on Saturday. The Daytona 500 seemed in store for a similar outcome when Dave Blaney sat in the lead under the red flag, at a time when no one was really sure if the area of the race track damaged by the fire was fit to race on. But crews extinguished the fire, and washed off all the spilled jet and diesel fuel, and patched up the track with a substance similar to what was used to fill the pothole two years ago, and when the race went green again the traditional powers moved to the front.

No surprise that the eventual victor was Kenseth, whose Roush brigade swept the front row in qualifying a week ago and all week showed enough speed to win. There were more wrecks --one sparked when Jamie McMurray went sideways, another started when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was squeezed into Tony Stewart -- that knocked a number of top contenders out of contention late. But the common theme was Kenseth, out front and safe from the carnage, holding the lead for 50 of the final 57 circuits and claiming a second Daytona 500 to go with his 2009 crown -- which, appropriately was won in an event shortened by rain.

"The last one, I know a lot was [written] about it, and it was rain-shortened and all that, but we all knew it was going to rain," Kenseth remembered. "We did a lot that day. We charged to the front, had one of the better cars, was able to make the pass right before it started raining, which is good timing, but I still felt like we had a fast car and we didn't luck into that, and thought we worked hard for that. But yeah, it's nice to go the whole distance and survive a green white checkered, too."

Getting there, though, was an adventure. Everyone knew coming in that the event had the potential to be a hairy one -- the vision of Jeff Gordon flipping onto his roof in the Budweiser Shootout a week ago was still fresh in the mind -- given the return of a pack-drafting format that often left cars in the middle of the bundle more unstable than their neighbors. And indeed the action was there, in the form of 10 cautions, including whoppers in the end involving seven and then eight cars. But no one was prepared for the sight of a red race car spinning out of control and into a jet dryer, sparking an inferno as hundreds of gallons of jet fuel spilled onto the track surface.

That's what happened on lap 160, when Montoya evidently had a transmission piece snap under caution, and veered into the jet dryer with such force that it sparked a huge fireball. Thankfully, the race car driver emerged with only a banged-up foot and a scorched helmet. Thankfully, the jet dryer driver was OK after a brief stop at a local hospital. Thankfully, crews were able to put out a fire that seemed for a few awful minutes like it was going to burn out of control, and clean the track surface -- with laundry detergent, no less -- so the event could be run to its completion.

"I've hit a lot of things," Montoya said, "but a jet dryer? No."

The accident led to a red flag of two hours and five minutes that pushed the event's finish into the early hours of the next morning. It veered from nearly tragic to almost comical, with drivers milling around the track during the long break like they were taking part in some sort of social hour, Brad Keselowski tweeting photos from a mobile phone he had evidently stashed in his car, and one crewman per team loaded into what resembled a rental car shuttle bus, which transported them to where the cars had been stopped so they could assist the drivers in re-attaching their window nets.

"That was kind of fun actually, standing around on the back straightaway," Earnhardt said. "It reminded me of Hickory [Motor Speedway] when we'd race over there and they'd have a funeral and you'd have to stop and talk about the race or whatever, whatever you'd want to talk about."

There was even fog, patches of it rolling in as the event neared its completion. After all that fire and rain, the only thing missing was a plague of locusts.

"The thing that comes into my mind is that NASCAR can't catch a break," Earnhardt said. "We're trying to deliver, and we just have some unfortunate things happen such as the rain delay, potholes in the track a couple years ago or whatever, things like that. And we're a good sport, and we're just trying to give a good product, and it's unfortunate that our biggest event was delayed, but I think everybody worked hard to put out a good product tonight, and it was good for us."

And it was especially good to Kenseth, who provided Roush with its 300th victory at NASCAR's national level, and himself with a second Daytona 500 title to go along with his Cup Series championship from 2003. A lot has changed for Kenseth since he last rolled into Victory Lane at Daytona -- he went through several crew chiefs before finally clicking with veteran Jimmy Fennig, endured some sponsor changes, and even now doesn't have enough primary backing for the full season. Roush has committed to run the No. 17 out of his pocket this season if he has to.

But early Tuesday morning, none of that seemed to matter. Kenseth led the final 38 laps, his strong car and usual cool helping him to avoid to madness going on behind him, prevailing despite a hot-running vehicle that was blowing water like Old Faithful both before and after the race ended. Leave it to the pride of Cambridge, Wis., to finally restore some order to a surprising Speedweeks and a nutty Daytona 500.

"To win the 150 and then to win the 500 as well, is certainly a lot more than I would have expected or really thought we were going to do," he said. "So it's always special to win races. It's really hard to win these races. The older you get and the more you race, you realize how hard it is, and you really try to enjoy all those moments."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.