There was a sigh of relief all around when the 54th Daytona 500 finally got underway at just after 7pm ET, almost 36 hours later than originally intended because of storm systems that had swept through the area and forced the race to be postponed to Monday for the first time in its history.
Perhaps the extended delay explains the pent-up aggression that emerged almost the minute the green flag did finally come out: Elliott Sadler charged into the back of Jimmie Johnson and spun the five-time champion's car around, with the unfortunate David Ragan ending up being first on the scene and ramming into the driver side door of the stricken #48.
"We just got caught up in it," said Ragan. "They started wrecking in front of us and we just couldn't get out of the way quick enough."
Ragan couldn't believe that he'd been wrecked that early in the race. "I can't wait to see who was the bonehead that did that," he said, before he was able to watch the replays. "It is ridiculous to sit around this long for the Daytona 500 and on the very first lap for someone to be driving as reckless as whoever caused that."
Despite the hard hit, Jimmie Johnson insisted that he was unhurt after the collision.
"I'm okay, I'm just really bummed-out," he told reporters after being checked over in the in-field medical centre. "That side hit was hard ... When I was left sitting in the middle of the race track, I knew at some point someone was going to come along unfortunately. David Ragan had nowhere to go. I unfortunately got drilled by him pretty hard."
Ragan and Johnson were out of the race, and the accident also caught up last year's Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Phoenix Racing's Kurt Busch, as well as Cup débutante Danica Patrick.
"I have no idea what happened," reported Bayne. "I tried to get as low as I could. I couldn't see what was going on. I got low and got slowed down and at the last second I think it was the #34 car [Ragan] that hit us in the right side door and put us into the grass. The only thing we really touched was the grass, but I guess it's so wet that it tore up the front of the car."
All three cars were seriously damaged and limped back to the garage for extended repairs, with Patrick not back out on track until the leaders were on lap 66. She was unable to make any progress for the rest of the night and finished classified in 38th place, 64 laps down as a result of the accident.
"It's disappointing," she admitted. "I would have loved to have gotten a great finish. I would have loved to have been able to run on the lead lap there at the end. I feel bad for disappointing my fans who were cheering for me, especially going out so early."
The race restarted but hit a second yellow just six laps later when Ryan Newman spun on the backstretch. To make Newman's night worse, he then lost a tyre on pit road and ended up being rear-ended by AJ Allmendinger who hadn't exactly been expecting to find the #39 stationary in the middle of pit road like that.
After that, things finally started to settle down to a more orderly affair, with Denny Hamlin leading for 23 laps and then Jeff Burton taking over before and after a round of green flag pit stops. The next caution was for debris in turn 2 on lap 64 and at the green flag four laps later Jeff Burton was leading Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.
After last week's Shootout and Duel races, teams had been fearing problems with engines overheating because of the new technical regulations designed to reduce two-car tandem drafting capabilities, but with the race now a night-time affair in much cooler conditions this proved to be less of an issue than expected. That didn't stop a problem with a cooler unit sending water temperatures sky-rocketing in Matt Kenseth's #17 car, however, and the amount of steam spouting from the car wouldn't have looked out of place at Yellowstone.
But in fact it was Jeff Gordon's engine that blew up next, bringing out a fourth caution on lap 81. He was surprised to go out that way: "There has been so much reliability testing that if we had seen some high temps or some high water pressure, then I would have kind of expected some of this to happen," he said. "But, I was actually seeing some surprising low temps and low pressures. I don't know, maybe something was off there."
That was followed by a fifth on lap 88 when Terry Labonte spun at the restart off the nose of Marcos Ambrose's #9 car - something that didn't impress Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was heard to cry out over his radio: "Aww, man! Who would turn the Ice Man around?"
At the next green flag, Greg Biffle led Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, but as the race passed the half-way mark the pairing of Hamlin and Truex pushed its way to the front and stayed through to the next caution on lap 129 which was caused by Clint Bowyer stalling on track in turn 2, apparently out of gas as routine pit stops had been imminent.
Mark Martin and David Stremme did not pit under the caution, and Tony Stewart had been in pit lane when the caution came out, so they led Regan Smith and the rest of the field to the next restart. This time the two dominant drivers of the night thus far - Hamlin and Biffle - teamed up to mug Martin for the lead off of turn 4.
Soon Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were joining the fun up front, as the race started to get serious as it entered its final quarter. The top five were nose-to-tail and the first 15 cars were covered by less than a second after 25 laps of green flag running.
Then David Stremme's engine called it a night, blowing up and sending the #30 spinning in front of a small pack of cars that fortunately managed to avoid a collision. That brought out caution number seven on lap 157, during which time the leaders came onto pit lane, many opting to take only two tyres at this stage in order to preserve track position. Dave Blaney, Landon Cassill, Tony Raines and David Gilliland stayed out of pit lane altogether for the time being and headed the field as it circulated under yellow.
Juan Montoya was among those to pit, but he was back in again next time around reporting a serious vibration with the #42. The team could find nothing and sent him back out again, but then something broke underneath the car and Montoya snapped right, the car careering up the high-banked track toward the wall. Unfortunately, there happened to be something currently between Montoya and the wall: one of the track maintenance vehicles merrily going about its routine clean-up activity well away from the race cars formed up behind the safety car.
Montoya had no control, and the #42 smacked right into the back of the vehicle, which was fitted with a jet engine used to dry off the track. Jet engines need jet fuel, and Montoya's impact ripped open the 200-gallon (757 litres) tank on the vehicle and the fuel erupted into a fireball. Both Montoya and the driver of the jet dryer escaped without serious injuries but both were rather stunned and shaken by the incident.
"I've hit a lot of things - but a jet dryer?!" was Montoya's own stunned take on the accident and his lucky escape. [See separate story for more details
, and video of Montoya's crash
"I have never seen anything like that in my career and I am willing to bet that no one else has either," was Regan Smith's view of the inferno. "It was spectacular, no question about that. The lengthy red flag knocked the wind out of our sails, but recently you've come to expect the unexpected at the Daytona 500."
The fire was so intense - the fuel running down the steep banking and catching fire to produce a spectacular wall of flame right across the track - and took such a long time to get under control that it looked for a time that the race might have to be called there and then. In the meantime the cars were parked out on the backstretch
"I will be shocked - shocked! - if we can get this race restarted," was the view of Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Letarte, which would have been music to Dave Blaney's ears. Could he be about to win the Daytona 500 by default? No wonder he didn't want to climb out of the car while the hiatus stretched on. A few spots of rain in the air only heightened the drama.
It took two hours, five minutes and 29 seconds and a boat load of laundry detergent to clean up the fuel spill, but finally - just as the clocks hit midnight - Letarte was proved wrong and the car engines sprang to life for the final 40 laps of the race.
"There's going to be a big speed bump heading into Turn 3," Letarte warned his driver as the cars started to circulate once more.
The four cars at the front - Blaney, Cassill, Raines and Gilliland - all now had to dive into pit road after all, surrendering the lead to Kenseth, Biffle, Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch also ended up at the back for the restart, after being penalised for having deigned to remove a plastic tear-off from their windscreens during the red flag period that prohibits any sort of work on the cars.
“I asked PK [Pierre Kuettel, Edwards' car chief] if we could pull the tear off and he said yes, and as soon as he pulled it the NASCAR official started
saying a lot of things," said Edwards later.
Kenseth and Biffle led for ten laps of green flag running, and then the race was back to yellow on lap 176 for an accident started by Aric Almirola getting into the back of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and spinning him on the frontstretch. Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears spun on the grass trying to avoid the incident but kept away from the wall and were able to continue - although Mears had further technical problems to deal with.
"Something with the new fuel injection pump system went wrong, we don't know enough about it to really understand exactly what happened," said Mears, who had been looking to hook up with Matt Kenseth to draft for the remainder of the race. "This is more heartbreaking than almost missing the show like last year because we had such a good race car. We were in very good position."
Kenseth and Biffle were still at the front for the restart on lap 182, but five laps later another multi-car accident broke out on the frontstretch. Jamie McMurray had been very squirrely off the turn and was finally sent into a spin after a hit from Joey Logano. McMurray then took a hard hit from Brad Keselowski who was then crunching into the wall, and a chain-reaction ensued from the chasing pack that caught up Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Regan Smith and Aric Almirola among others.
"When you're in the middle of the pack at the closing stages of a restrictor-plate race, you're asking for trouble," shrugged a resigned Smith. "We were in the danger zone and sure enough we got caught up in someone else's mess. I knew we were in a bad position."
Tony Stewart was one of the more fortunate drivers, sneaking through the accident without incurring race-ending damage. But his luck ran out almost immediately after the restart, when Joey Logano made contact with Ricky Stenhouse who spun into the side of Stewart. That turned the #14 sideways and the inevitable pack racing Big One ensued catching out multiple cars including Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman.
With that incident occurring on lap 196 it meant that the race was pushed beyond its scheduled 200-lap race distance and into green-white-chequered conditions. Kenseth and Biffle were still in the lead for the final two-lap shootout with Earnhardt behind them waiting for Biffle to make a play for the race lead through the final corners.
"I was waiting and waiting," said Earnhardt about Biffle. "It looked like he might have been trying to make a move on the back straightaway, but nothing materialised.
"Then we came off four, and I kind of waited till the last minute for him to have his opportunity to try to pass Matt, and nothing was happening, so I just pulled out and went around him," he continued. Earnhardt's slingshot move shot him past Biffle and into second place at the line.
"On the backstretch I moved up a little bit, and Matt is not stupid; we had no run at him. We were all going the same speed," said Biffle, explaining why he hadn't been able to make any move on Kenseth. "So when I moved over, Matt just moved over real easy, and Junior is against my back bumper, so I'm trying not to wreck because he's shoving on me and I'm doing this down the back, and I'm like, 'I'm not going to be able to get a run at him.'"
While Earnhardt and Biffle battled over second, Kenseth had leapt away in front and had enough of an edge to stay there and take the chequered flag.
"I wasn't expecting to win when I woke up this morning so it feels good to be sitting here," said Kenseth afterwards, celebrating his second Daytona 500 victory and his 22nd race win in Sprint Cup competition in 437 starts. "We had a really fast car all day and overcame a lot of adversity and problems with the car that we figured out.
"[I] almost ended up a lap down," Kenseth admitted of those early issues with the car, including the overheating water. "I had my radio break and my tach break and we pushed all the water out and had to come in and put water in it. These guys did a great job. They never panicked and I think they enjoyed their day more because they couldn't hear me on the radio with my radio problems!"
Overall, Kenseth was just ecstatic to have delivered the full potential that he had known was in the car all week. "We had a really fast car and have fast cars in the past and I figured out a way to mess it up. I am thankful everything worked out on the restarts and I am glad it all worked out," he said, adding: "It feels good!"
"This is a special night, Matt is a real champion," said team owner Jack Roush, who celebrated a landmark of 300 wins for Roush Fenway Racing with Kenseth's success. "It feels great. It is very fitting that Matt won the 300th victory ... We started in 1988 and [Kenseth's crew chief] Jimmy Fennig has been with us for most of the time and Matt has been here most of the time as well. It is great to celebrate our 300th win here with the 54th Daytona 500. This is Matt's second 500 win and that makes it special as well."
"All of us at Ford want to congratulate Jack and his team at Roush Fenway Racing for their 300th NASCAR victory, and for it to come in the Daytona 500 is fantastic," said the director of Ford Racing, Jamie Allison. "Jack is true-blue, and always has been, and we couldn't be prouder to be associated with him and his race team.”
The evening had seen 25 lead changes among 13 drivers, and ten cautions including the fire-induced red flag. With the race finally run, everyone was keen to pack up and head out of Daytona, where they had been encamped for a week and a half for the full duration of 2010 Speedweeks. There's also another race weekend fast looming on the horizon, with everyone needing to get over to Phoenix, Arizona for the start of Friday's Nationwide and Cup races there.
Instead, it turned out that the weather had one last sting in the tale for the weary NASCAR battalions: fog grounded many of the flights out of Daytona Beach after the event and meant another long wait for the drivers before they could get going. But then, they're getting very used to that sort of thing now.Full race resultsMontoya crash - reportMontoya crash - video