Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Dayton 500 on Feb. 23, 2014 (Photo by Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports Image)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, ending a 57-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series and becoming an instant championship contender in NASCAR's premier series.
Earnhardt led the final 18 laps in winning the Great American Race for the second time, pulling away on a restart with two laps remaining and hanging on as the race ended under caution nearly 11 hours after it began because of a rain delay of more than six hours.
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"Hell, yeah!" Earnhardt radioed his team as his No. 88 Chevrolet crossed the finish ahead of Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon. "I'm going to burn this ... down. Unbelievable!"
"I love you, man," responded Steve Letarte, who is entering his final season as Earnhardt's crew chief before moving to a TV analyst role next year. "I love you."
It was Earnhardt's second victory in the Daytona 500 and his 20th in the Cup circuit.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, other than winning the championship," said Earnhardt, whose last win in NASCAR's signature event was 10 years ago. "I didn't know if I would ever get the chance to feel this again."
Denny Hamlin finished second, followed by Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson.
"He's such a competitor, and there's no better race to win than the Daytona 500. Especially for Junior," said Gordon, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "There is something unique and special because of his fan base."
Under NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, any race winner qualifies for the season-ending 10-race playoff, which also will feature elimination rounds and a winner-take-all season finale among four drivers.
Making the title run was a relief for Earnhardt, who hadn't won since June 2012 and had endured a four-year winless skid prior to that.
"I'd like to tell my fans that support us that we pretty much (are) in the Chase," the 10-time most popular driver said. "You ain't got to worry about that! We can get that off our chests."
Earnhardt fended off a challenge by Keselowski on the final restart and got drafting help from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon to protect the lead.
Though he hadn't won at Daytona since 2004, he'd finished runner-up in three of the past four years at the season opener.
"This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening. I'll never take this for granted, man. This doesn't happen twice, let alone once. Just real thankful."
The race was relatively clean until a 13-car wreck on lap 145 that started when Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott made contact, triggering a chain reaction off turn 4. The driver who took the heaviest impact was Danica Patrick, whose No. 10 Chevrolet turned hard into a section of the wall uncovered by a SAFER barrier.
Patrick, who led the Daytona 500 for the second consecutive year (pacing laps 85-86), was unhurt in the incident but was disappointed in the outcome.
"I'm just upset the GoDaddy car felt really good and was the best we had in Speedweeks," she said. "I felt everything was going pretty well. It's just upsetting, a culmination of sitting around all day. It's a bummer, but that's the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen. It's unfortunate I was on the short end of the accident, but that's the type of thing that happens."
Said Michael Waltrip: "The cars are grippy. People are crazy. They like to go. There are a lot of lanes, and people are trying to use every one of them. It's a great race for the fans."
Aric Almirola, also involved in the wreck, said the intensity increased as the race progressed with the threat of rain lurking that could shorten the race early.
"It's been a lot more chaotic for sure," he said. "The track has a lot more grip, so people are taking a lot more risks. The cars drive a lot better at night."
After a break of more than six hours, the racing was furious as soon as the green flag flew at 8:52 p.m. Cars began scrambling for position immediately, forming in several three-wide rows. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch quickly took command, leading 11 of 13 laps after the restart, but both Toyota drivers ran into trouble.
Hamlin had problems with his radio, and Busch got penalized with a pass-through penalty for leaving his pit stall with an air gun attached. Coupled with an earlier pit miscue, it was another tough break for JGR, which hasn't won the Daytona 500 in 21 years.
Tony Stewart's bid for a storybook ending to his comeback story ended in another Daytona 500 disappointment. Stewart, who was returning after a six-month layoff because of a broken right leg, began experiencing engine and fuel pressure problems shortly after the race's midpoint.
The problems necessitated several pit stops under green for the three-time champion, who now is 0 for 16 in NASCAR's crown jewel despite 18 wins at Daytona International Speedway.