Dale's day: Earnhardt Jr. wins Daytona 500
February 23, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It took most of a day to get it in, but only one short slice of a moment to determine the outcome.
The 39-year-old led six times for 54 laps in the 200-lap event, holding off Denny Hamlin for the victory in a two-lap dash set up after a multicar crash in Turn 3.
A winner of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' premier event in 2004, Earnhardt Jr. had finished second in three of his last four Daytona 500 attempts. Sunday's victory was his first win in his last 56 starts.
Another crash erupted on the final lap, forcing the race to end under caution, but the mayhem was in the leader's rear-view mirror.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in the sport, aside from … accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the winner’s circle.
“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, running second all those years and wondering why and what we needed to do.
“We got a little help from Jeff (Gordon) to get away on that restart and tried to take care of if from there. This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take it for granted because this just doesn’t happen twice.”
It was a popular victory, both among the fans and fellow competitors.
“The world is right, right now,” said Gordon, a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. “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.”
“He has been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years and got it done tonight,” Johnson said. “He did an awesome job.”
“I’m glad Dale got the win – he needed that,” said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth, sixth in the final rundown. “He needed that. That was good for him and Denny -- Denny was super fast all week and it looks like he almost pulled it off, too.”
Hamlin, eyeing a sweep of events at DIS -- he won last week’s Sprint Unlimited and one of Thursday’s two Budweiser Duel races -- rallied from sixth to second in the closing laps.
Brad Keselowski, Gordon and Johnson completed the top five in the season’s season-opening event.
An early push on the final restart from Gordon shoved Earnhardt Jr. out front and away from the frantic two-by-two battles. Keselowski was second when the field took the white flag, signifying one lap remaining, while Hamlin rode in third.
“I’m so 50/50 on whether I’m pissed off or I’m happy,” Hamlin said after his career-best finish in the 500. “I just don’t know.
“Any other year I probably would have been like jumping up and down. We can hardly finish these races, much less have a shot at a victory.”
Hamlin said radio issues that surfaced after the long rain delay returned late in the race, and left him acting as his own spotter.
“I felt like our car wasn’t as strong as the week progressed. The competition definitely caught up for sure. Then … me not being able to drive to my ability because I was being conservative, trying to spot for myself, that’s not a way to race.”
Only 38 laps had been completed when the race was halted for rain. Officials red-flagged the race at 2:13 p.m. ET. Although the rain intensified – severe weather warnings were issued for the surrounding region and lightning streaked against the gray sky – after nearly six and one half hours, the cars were back on the race track.
Kyle Busch was on point when the race was stopped with Kasey Kahne, Hamlin, Brian Vickers and Paul Menard completing the top five.
Earnhardt Jr. didn’t take the lead for the first time until lap 131, but once there his No. 88 Chevrolet proved to be stout. Others were equally strong.
A power move coming out of the fourth turn with 21 laps remaining pushed Carl Edwards into the lead, with Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth, Johnson and Greg Biffle rounding out the top five.
Kenseth moved into second a lap later, with just 20 laps remaining.
With 18 to go, it was Earnhardt Jr. showing the power, pulling the outside line around Edwards and into the lead. Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Reed Sorenson and Keselowski were second through fifth as Edwards was shuffled back to seventh.
The fifth caution of the race flew on the ensuing lap, however, as 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne spun and careened off the wall to set up a 13-lap shootout.
With 10 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. remained out front with Johnson, Gordon, Harvick and Keselowski trailing. Kurt Busch spun coming to the tri-oval and momentarily became stuck in the grass at the entrance to pit road. But no caution appeared, and the race remained under green.
The yellow did appear at lap 195 when a six-car melee unfolded in Turn 3. Ryan Newman, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt were among those involved.
Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 victory came while he was driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his late father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
“It’s hard to put into words what winning this race really means to you,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I felt lucky (in 2004) because I was with a lot of family back then. What makes this (race) special is the people that you have with you when it happens.
“It just seems like it’s too good to be true, really.”