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.
"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."
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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.
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."
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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.
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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.
Severe weather and red flag
The first 38 laps before the delay were relatively uneventful as drivers seemed content to log laps in order.
Pole-sitter Austin Dillon, in the first start of the No. 3 Chevrolet since Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, led the first lap before yielding first to Denny Hamlin, who was trying to become the first Sprint Cup driver to sweep the Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel qualifying race and Daytona 500.
By the eighth lap, the 43 cars were strung out in a long single-file line around the 2.5-mile oval. The action also was limited by poor handling for many drivers. Starting in muggy 75-degree weather after running the Unlimited and qualifying races in cooler conditions at night, cars didn't respond as well as earlier in Speedweeks when many had hailed a taller spoiler with enhancing passing by increasing the closing rate and reinvigorating side-drafting.
Kyle Larson, one of seven rookies starting the Great American Race, suffered a tire problem on the third lap, and his No. 42 Chevrolet caused the first yellow flag with a Turn 2 spin on lap 23.
During the first round of pit stops, two-time Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth pulled into his stall backward after missing his signboard and colliding with Trevor Bayne.
That was about it for memorable moments until the yellow flag flew on lap 33 for fluid put down by an engine failure in Martin Truex Jr.'s car. Truex, in his first season with Furniture Row Racing, was the race's second-place qualifier but had to start in the back of the field after wrecking in a qualifying race Thursday night. He finished 43rd.
The rain began during the caution period shortly after 2 p.m., and NASCAR stopped the cars after six laps at 2:13.
That began a red flag that lasted six hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds and brought intermittent storms, a tornado warning and a tidal wave of confusion for many watching the delay on TV.
Fox showed a replay of last year's race, which was won by Jimmie Johnson, but many viewers and some media outlets apparently thought they were watching a live broadcast. As the congratulations began pouring in via texts and social media after the replay ended around 5:45 p.m., the six-time champion poked fun on Twitter: "I hear I won the #Daytona500? Haha! I also have friends confused and texting congratulations to me. #2013Replay."
"The coolest thing about this weather is we were able to run two Daytona 500s in one day," Clint Bowyer said in a Fox interview during the delay. "Jimmie won the first one apparently. I'm going to win the next one."
Sunday's long delay was the latest in a series of bizarre twists in NASCAR's signature event.
Two years ago, the 54th edition of the race was postponed for the first time in its history. After starting Monday night, it was delayed by two hours after track cleanup from a Turn 3 fireball because Juan Pablo Montoya collided with a jet dryer.
In 2010, the race was delayed twice for more than two hours because of a pothole. Rain also shortened the race in 2009.