Full race results, Sprint Cup Championship standings
and interview with the winner
For a long time it seemed as though the 2014 Daytona 500 simply wasn't going to happen on Sunday, as Mother Nature stole the limelight and threw everything she had into thwarting the running of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series season opener. When the clouds finally cleared it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who kept repeatedly popping up at the front, and who then survived the usual Daytona wrecking action to emerge as the winner of the race shortly before midnight.
"I can't believe it," Earnhardt shouted in order to be heard as seemingly the whole of Daytona International Speedway erupted in celebration at his second win in the Great American Race. "I really enjoyed this one. I was having the time of my life driving down that straightaway and couldn't wait to hug everybody in victory lane. This one was funner."
Before the storms had rolled in, pole winner Austin Dillon had led the field to the green flag for the start of the 200 lap, 500 mile race, but while the #3 led the first lap he was soon dropping back down the running order. Surprisingly the beneficiary wasn't Matt Kenseth - who had been effectively promoted to the front row for the start of the race by Martin Truex Jr. being sent to the back for taking to the backup car following a wreck at the end of Thursday night's Duel qualifier - but rather it was Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin who moved confidently to the front ahead of Kurt Busch and Paul Menard. However, Hamlin's first spell in front only lasted 11 laps before he was obliged to drop back because of skyrocketing water temperatures courtesy of debris on the #11's front grille.
The first caution came on lap 22 for a spin by new Cup rookie driver Kyle Larson in turn 2. Larson had already scraped the wall twice in the opening laps before heading to pit road for repairs without bringing out a caution, while Greg Biffle had gone through a similar experience grazing the outside wall on lap 18. Most drivers took the opportunity to pit for tyres and fuel - Kenseth spinning as he pulled in and facing the wrong way around for his service - and when racing resumed it was Busch, Menard and Dale Earnhardt Jr. still at the front ahead of Hamlin. However the #41 was quickly swallowed up, allowing Menard to take point ahead of Hamlin.
A second caution on lap 32 was for the #78 of Truex blowing an engine and leaving oil on the track; half the field took the opportunity to duck into the pits under the yellow, with a fuel-only stop giving Earnhardt victory in the race off pit road but still leaving him down in 18th place as Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne picked up the lead ahead of Hamlin after opting to stay out. However, the onset of rain meant a red flag with all cars being parked and covered on pit road: showers had been predicted, but this quickly escalated into worst case scenario as torrential storms, lightning and even tornado warnings closed in on Daytona International Speedway and caused a lengthy suspension.
Once the storms passed, NASCAR's new Air Titan track-drying technology proved indispensable in getting the track back to racing condition but even so it was more than six hours later because the cars were back out, by which time it was nearly nine at night and conditions under the floodlights were very different from what the teams had been expecting to face mid-afternoon. The JGR duo of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin emerged as the early front-runners after a tense period of three-wide running, but then first Brad Keselowski and then Paul Menard were able to slip past them to take charge; Busch's race prospects were subsequently badly hit at the next round of pit stops when the #18 pulled away with an air gun still attached, earning him a stop-go penalty from the officials that put him a lap down.
By lap 90 the staggered pit stops had filtered through and Menard was back in front of Hamlin with Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards in close pursuit, but it was the Henrick Motorsport contingent that were coming on song in the mid-race stage and Jimmie Johnson took over the lead on lap 108 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in support. It was the stage of the race in which the gremlins were setting in, with Tony Stewart consigned to pit road seemingly for an eternity with a fuel pick-up problem, and Clint Bowyer also suffering a terminal engine problem.
The race had gone nearly 100 laps between cautions - almost full half-race distance, meaning it was now 'official' should the rain have made an encore appearance - by the time the yellow came out again on lap 145 for a pile-up sparked by Kevin Harvick making contact with Brian Scott who then sent Aric Almirola into the wall as the knock-on effects quickly engulfed pole man Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Michael Waltrip, Justin Allgaier and one-time leader Paul Menard, with Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., David Gilliland and Josh Wise also getting involved to a lesser degree.
"Somebody got loose up under us and ruined our day," sighed Almirola. "That's part of it - it's Daytona."
"The cars are grippy and people are crazy," Waltrip said. "There's a lot of lanes out there and people are trying to use every one of them.
"I felt like everything was going pretty well so it's just upsetting, you know?" said Patrick. "It's just the culmination of sitting around all day. It's a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident. But that is the kind of thing that happens."
Earnhardt had to see off Biffle for the lead at the restart after the #16 popped to the front after opting for a fuel-only stop, and then the race was soon back under yellow again on lap 162 when Kyle Larson's torrid first race in the Chip Ganassi Racing #42 came to an end with a crash in turn 4 after being turned around by contact from Austin Dillon: "I got in the wall on lap one, blew the right rear and spun so we had a rough start from the go of it," Larson admitted later.
"We were racing pretty hard there. I just pulled the middle line and I don't know if Austin got a little loose, shuffled up the track and got into me and turned us sideways," he explained, adding wearily: "It's been a really long day."
Roush Fenway team mates Biffle and Edwards battled hard to take the lead from Hendrick duo Earnhardt and Johnson at the restart, and Earnhardt had only just got his nose back in front of Edwards when the sixth caution came out on lap 183 for 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne getting into the wall hard on the backstretch. The leaders decided to play the fuel conservation card and stayed out, Edwards and Johnson emphatically taking control of the race when the green flag came out and now joined at the front by a third member of the squad in Jeff Gordon.
The race escaped another quick yellow when Kurt Busch made it back to pit lane after a spin on lap 190, but hopes that the race would make it all the way to the finish were thwarted when contact between Richard Childress Racing team mates Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman sparked a conflagration at the back of the field on lap 194 that caught up Brian Scott, Justin Allgaier, Terry Labonte, Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt, and set up a final three-lap sprint to the finish led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in which Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski successfully muscled their way past the #88's team mates in the final moments.
It proved a messy finish: the white flag was already out when the final wreck of the night erupted in the leaders' rear view mirrors when Harvick got loose and sent Kyle Busch sliding backwards down pit lane, with other drivers including Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and Reed Sorenson among others - all of which didn't trouble Earnhardt, though, who was still out in front when the field was frozen and ended under the caution, with the #88 duly declared the winner.
"This race car was awesome," said Earnhardt. "We showed 'em all night long how good a car we had, and it's because these guys who put it together in the shop. That thing would do anything. We fought off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end from Jeff to get away on that restart and we tried to take care of it from there."
Earnhardt's second Daytona 500 victory - his first was ten years ago in 2004 - likely secures him a spot in the 2014 Chase under the new rules introduced this year, and was wildly popular with the legion of 'Junior Nation' fans at Daytona, and also with his fellow competitors, Hendrick team mates and other rivals alike.
“He has been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years and got it done tonight,” said Jimmie Johnson. "He did an awesome job."
"The world is right, right now,” added Jeff Gordon. “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."
“I'm glad Dale got the win – he needed that,” said Kenseth, who finished sixth. "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."
And best of all, successfully getting the race in the books on Sunday night meant that there would be no need to return to the Speedway on Monday to get things completed, so the teams could finally pack up and hit the road overnight. After all, the second race of the season is less than seven days away and there's a lot of miles to over to make it to Phoenix in time. Now that the NASCAR season has started again, it'll be a non-stop roller coaster ride all the way through to November.
Full race results, Sprint Cup Championship standings
and interview with the winner