Matt Kenseth wins the Daytona 500 - Photo courtesy NASCAR
The 54th annual Daytona 500 finally got underway around 7:15 p.m. Monday night after a day and a half's postponement for lingering rain; it was the first time this NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race had ever been run completely under the lights and on the final weekend of February.
By the time Tuesday morning arrived, NASCAR's teams, drivers, fans, officials, track workers and media had survived all that rain, great balls of fire from Juan Pablo Montoya's slam into a jet-dryer truck , a massive clean-up of the subsequent 200-gallon fire in Turn 3 and a massive tweet-up by drivers waiting for that two-hour-plus clean-up to be complete so they could go racing with 40 laps remaining.
The final green-white-checker race extension was classic and resulted in Matt Kenseth's second Daytona 500 win in a traditional slingshot move off Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle's Ford Fusion. The Biff got slotted back to third as he and Dale Earnhardt Jr tried get the best of Kenseth; Earnhardt had to settle for second.
In his first win the race didn't go the distance and this time it went overtime. Kenseth knew he "had a really fast car all day and overcame a lot of adversity and problems with the car that we figured out. I wasn't expecting to win when I woke up this morning so it feels good to be sitting here," he said.
"I think the 16 (Biffle) had one of the strongest cars all week and ours was right there as well. Our car, for some reason was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic. It took a long time to get to the front but like Thursday, once we were in the front it was hard for anyone to get locked onto you."
Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick, polesitter Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Mark Martin completed the top 10. There were still 22 cars on the lead lap at the close, with 10 additional drivers still running in the early morning contest.
The first crash took out five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson - Photo courtesy NASCAR
The action began early, on the second lap when Elliott Sadler slid into Jimmie Johnson for the first "Big One" of the night, taking our the five-time champion, David Ragan, Robby Gordon, defending Daytona 500 champ Trevor Bayne, Kurt Busch and the resilient Danica Patrick in her third Speedweeks crash. Bayne and Patrick would return to the circuit, as would Busch, but all three were many, many laps down.
There were 10 cautions in all, 25 lead changes among 13 drivers and even Tide laundry detergent got into the act, serving as part of the clean-up for the massive jet-fuel fire. Fox television stuck with the race through to the end, denying its affiliates the normal February ratings bonanzas - yet the overnight ratings were 7.7, up from Sunday's overnight of 4.5 for its nearly six hours of filler material.
When the Montoya incident occurred with the jet-dryer truck, the Colombian had been complaining about vibration in his car. Under caution the team attempted to find the problem and sent him out. Exiting the pits, Montoya pulled onto the circuit and suddenly veered hard right into the truck. "I've hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer?" he asked. "It just felt really strange, and as I was talking on the radio the car just turned right." Neither he nor the truck driver were more than slightly injured; Montoya's helmet did get burnt a bit and he had a slight limp.
It took 2 hours and some Tide detergent to clean the track - Photo courtesy NASCAR
At the time of the red flag stoppage, journeyman Dave Blaney was leading in Tommy Baldwin's car after not calling to the pits; he pitted for fuel as soon as racing resumed with Kenseth taking over the lead when the race when green with 34 to go. The Ford-powered cars were pretty much unstoppable, but Dale Earnhardt Jr sure tried - without anyone to help him. Earnhardt moved out on the white flag lap but neither he nor Biffle had Kenseth's number.
This was Kenseth's 22nd career victory in his 437th start. The Wisconsin native became the ninth driver to secure multiple Daytona 500 victories, giving Ford three wins in the last four Daytona 500 races. Kenseth also won the second Gatorade Duel on Thursday in his No. 17 Best Buy Ford Fusion.
"I learned a little on Thursday at the last couple laps there of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked," Kenseth admitted. "We had enough speed and once we took the white I felt sort of okay about it. By the time I got to three and saw they couldn't get enough speed mustered up to try to make it move," he knew the win was his.
The push-back of the 54th Daytona 500 has put a good deal of hustle into the teams, who must now get to Phoenix and into the track on Thursday night for the second race of the year. Some teams sent trucks to Daytona with Phoenix-spec cars on them for a quick turnaround at Daytona before the haul west; others must return to their Charlotte-area shops before trekking cross-country.