Pole sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the dominant force in Sunday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, leading for a total of 96 of the 161 laps and rarely far from the front when he wasn't out in front. Not even a seriously rain-delayed start and a number of nasty wrecks could stop him from clinching the chequered flag coming up to the ungodly hour of three o'clock in the morning.

It's Earnhardt's 25th victory in 558 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and his second of the season. His other win of 2015 was also at a restrictor plate event after he edged his team mate Johnson to victory at Talladega Superspeedway at the start of May. In total, it's the fourth time in his career that Earnhardt has gone to victory lane at the 2.5-mile circuit and his tenth restrictor plate race win.

"This is my Talladega car, I knew it had good potential," he said after the race. "The guys that deserve all the credit are standing here in Victory Lane with me. The engine guys back at the shop. They do such an awesome job building the motors for these cars. We have the best engines in this sport; we have had for years."

CLICK: Full race results from Daytona and updated Sprint Cup Championship standings.

The finish was marred by a huge accident for Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon in the final run down to the line. It was sparked when Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin was spun out of second place by contact from Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick, which caused instant mayhem among the pursuing cars; Dillon got the worst of it as the #3 hit the front of Hamlin's car and was launched over a pack of cars into a sickening impact with the outside catchfence. It was vicious enough to destroy Dillon's race car and do serious damage to the fence itself, but which at least withstood the initial impact well enough to do its job and protect the spectators standing on the other side. However, five fans needed treatment for minor injuries from flying debris that was able to get through the steel mesh: one was transported to a local hospital in stable condition before being treated and released, four were taken to the infield care centre for treatment. Another eight were examined at the scene but declined treatment.

Safety workers and pit lane crew members from a number of teams sprinted to the crash site on the frontstraight where the remains of Dillon's overturned car came to rest after receiving a heavy secondary impact from Penske's Brad Keselowski. A number of onlookers frankly feared the worst, but remarkably Dillon was able to walk away unaided once freed from the expensive pile of scrap metal, and his trip to the in-field care centre was very brief and revealed only minor bruising after what he himself described as "a wicked ride."

"I am just going to be really sore, it got my tailbone pretty good and my arm, should be fine," said Dillon, who was still shown as finishing in seventh place despite the accident. "I just wanted to get out of there and let the fans know that I was okay, let my parents and grandparents know that I was all right."

"The only thing I was worried about was that there was oil everywhere and I wanted to get away from the car and that was why I was scrambling to get out from under it. And then just wanted to wave to the fans and let them know I was all good.

"Just thank the good Lord for taking care of me and for what NASCAR has done to make the sport this much safer," he added. "I just hope everybody in the stands is all right. That is the next biggest concern. Just praying for everybody and glad the good Lord looked out for me tonight."

"It scared the [crap] out of me," Earnhardt admitted, clearly affected by memories of his own father's fatal crash here in 2001. "I was near tears. I didn't even know who it is, but you just don't want to see anybody get hurt. It's an awful feeling." He said that after such a sight "the racing doesn't matter any more", explaining the unusually subdued mood in victory lane even once it was clear that Dillon had emerged unscathed.

"We have all become closer friends, I think," he explained. "We all sort of live in this community, and you may not like everybody, but you damn sure grow to respect them and don't want to see anybody get hurt."

"Man, that was a massive, massive wreck," agreed six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "Just a scary moment - I saw it all take place in the mirror. It hit me hard, I thought something really bad happened.

"Happy to hear that Austin is okay," he continued. "I've never seen a car stop that fast. It was just incredible what took place out there - and how he got airborne, too. Typically you see a car go backwards and get airborne. He just had a little contact on the left front, and got air under him and the thing took off like an airplane. I am glad Austin is okay. I'm just hoping that the fans are okay. It was a frightening moment."

After all the last-lap carnage, Johnson had ended up once again came second to Earnhardt this weekend just as he had two months ago at Talladega, having himself led for 35 laps during the late night event. "Looks like we had a one-two for the shop and I know that is a proud moment. I'm sure there will be a party until mid-day tomorrow at Junior's house," he said.

"Passing for the lead was tough," Johnson admitted. "You could pass and get to second with ease to a certain degree if you were doing things right, but passing for the lead was the hardest thing to get done. You put Dale, Jr. at the front of this thing with how good a driver he is and how he works the draft, you aren't going to get by. Congrats to him."

The race had been scheduled for an 8pm start but didn't get underway until 11.42pm because of rain around the Daytona Beach area. With the event already due to run under the floodlights and no local curfew forcing a definite time to finish, NASCAR took advantage of the Fourth of July holiday weekend that meant that fans didn't have to worry about rushing home for work in the morning.

Almost the minute that the race got underway, there was a trademark Daytona 'big one' after just three laps triggered when Front Row Motorsports' David Gilliland came down precipitously across the front of Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer and got loose exiting turn four as a result, initiating a nine-car wreck at the entrance to pit road on the frontstretch. Among the others caught up were Richard Petty Motorsports' Sam Hornish Jr., Penske's Joey Logano, SHR's Danica Patrick, Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle, BK Racing's Jeb Burton and HScott Motorsports' Michael Annett. However the most badly affected driver was Bobby Labonte whose Go FAS Racing Ford was too extensively damaged to continue.

Following a planned post-rain competition yellow on lap 26, JGR's Carl Edwards was the cause of the next caution on lap 54 when he got loose and hit the wall in turn 4. The #19 was repaired and back out on track in time for the restart, which saw a second spin of the night for Gilliland after the #38 cut a tyre five laps later. There was an odd moment at the next restart on lap 63 when the caution lights appeared to come on by mistake in turn 1, which a number of drivers saw and instinctively obeyed. That cost them track position, but race control opted not to further delay proceedings in order to stop and reset the order.

The second multi-car accident of the night occurred on lap 86 when Kyle Larson got loose which resulted in the #42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy coming up the track where it made contact with the left front of Edwards' wounded Toyota sending both cars spinning along with Roush's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Initially it appeared that it would be no worse than an inconvenience for all concerned, but then Brian Scott ran into the out-of-control #19 at high speed leading to a fiery wreck that terminated the race on the spot for both drivers who were thankfully both unharmed.

"The field was coming up to pass a lap down car and it looked like the #42 got loose going around it getting in the middle, which happens with these Sprint Cup cars," Scott explained. "They are so aero sensitive on the side. Then from there it was Daytona. They were wrecking."

"It's really frustrating," said Edwards. "That whole wreck happened and I thought, 'Man, I've got this,' a couple times, and then Brian Scott was real curious about the underside of the car. I had no clue what happened. I thought I was going to flip over frontwards. I guess nobody got hurt, and we'll go race at Kentucky next week."

There was an even bigger crash to come on lap 105, and once again Larson was at the thick of it after contact from JGR's Matt Kenseth. Both cars spun and once again those behind had no where to go except straight to the scene of the accident: as well as Larson, Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was also out of the race with damage while the Richard Petty Motorsport team was able to patch up defending race winner Aric Almirola's #43 to get him back out on track albeit 20 laps down. Others involved in the mess included Larson's Ganassi team mate Jamie McMurray, Hendrick Motorsport's Kasey Kahne, and Penske pair Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

"Just another situation where we were kind of running outside there minding our own business and just like practice, just got caught up in somebody else's wreck," said Truex who was already in his backup car for the race after a multi-car wreck in first practice on Friday. "It's unfortunate, but that is the way this place is. I don't know that I've finished a race here in July in quite a while. But we had a great car. We didn't have quite the speed of a few of those guys, but we had a great handling race car. On the longer runs we could really make some moves."

Earnhardt made his final stop for fuel before leading the restart on lap 114, and that meant he was good to the finish and didn't need to pit under the next caution for Danica Patrick spinning out and hitting the turn 2 wall on lap 128. As the end of the race approached at the speed of dawn, Earnhardt was still firmly on point at the head of a team 1-2-3 with Johnson in second place and Jeff Gordon in third making his final appearance at Daytona before retiring from competition at the end of the current season.

Inevitably there were more accidents to come before the chequered flag could fly. David Ragan got sideways in the Michael Waltrip Racing #55 and spun out onto the backstretch grass to bring out the eighth caution on lap 148, and then Sam Hornish Jr. spun out at the same spot on lap 156. That sent the race into green-white-chequered overtime, which fortunately Earnhardt had enough fuel left on board to be able to manage without having to ease up or run dry. He was already approaching the finish line when that final big wreck of the night broke out behind him following contact between Hamlin and Harvick.

"Just a lot of pushing and shoving," explained the reigning Sprint Cup champion afterwards. "I caught the #11 [Hamlin] there and he had a big piece of damage on the left-rear, but at that point you couldn't run off and I finally just snagged him and turned him as he was in the middle of the track. I hate that all happened, but just at the end of the race it becomes pretty aggressive."

Harvick was classified in fourth place behind Hamlin, with his SHR team mate Kurt Busch taking fifth place ahead of Jeff Gordon. With Austin Dillon still listed in seventh despite crossing the line airborne and wrong-side-up, the remainder of the top ten was filled by his RCR team mate Ryan Newman along with the battle-scarred cars of Trevor Bayne and Clint Bowyer.

In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Earnhardt's win propels him up two places into second, albeit still 64 points behind runaway leader Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson is also boosted by this week's race result and moves into third spot, displacing Joey Logano. The big loser from this weekend's race is Martin Truex Jr. whose remarkable run of consistency so far this season was derailed with his early accident at Daytona that means he drops three spots to fifth place, although he's still well ahead of Jamie McMurray in sixth.

McMurray is the highest-placed driver in the standings not to already be assured a spot in the Chase courtesy of a race win. As well as Harvick, Earnhardt, Johnson, Logano and Truex there have also been race wins for Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch.

Despite his win last week at Sonoma, Kyle Busch's grip on a Chase place remains highly tentative as he must still finish the regular season in 30th place or better to be eligible to transfer into the championship play-offs in September. He's some way off achieving that after missing the first 11 races of the season with injuries sustained in a support race crash at Daytona in February the day before the season opener. His cause was not helped this week by an early hit into the wall on lap 17 that put him two laps down for repairs, but the JGR driver stuck to it and got two free passes during early cautions to get back onto the lead lap, pulling off what could yet prove to be a crucial damage limitation exercise for the rest of the night to finish the race in 17th place. That's still not the top 14 finish that he needs to average in order to overcome the predicted moving target of 30th place in the points currently held by Cole Whitt, but it's a lot better than retiring early and coming away with only one or two points would otherwise have been.

Busch's next opportunity to close that gap will come next Saturday when the Sprint Cup field take to the track for the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway for the 18th round of the 2015 season.

See full race results from Daytona and updated Sprint Cup Championship standings.

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