The Daytona 500 has seen its share of shocking races over the years, but nothing that has come before — and likely nothing that occurs here again — will ever quite match what happened to the 54th running of Nascar’s premier Sprint Cup event.
First came the rain — causing the Daytona 500 to be postponed to Monday for the only time in its history. Then came the fire. A bizarre crash, even by auto racing standards, involving a racecar and a jet dryer truck led to a huge jet fuel fire across the track that seared the asphalt.
In a race already delayed 36 hours by rain, the fire caused a stoppage of two hours and five minutes. Throw in a trio of major wrecks at the end, and an extra two laps of racing had to be tacked on for a green-flag finish after all that had come before.
When it was finally, finally, finally done, Matt Kenseth was in victory lane. And the clock showed Tuesday morning.
“It feels great,” Kenseth said after earning $1.589 million for his second career Daytona 500 victory. He also won in 2009 in a race that was shortened by rain.
“I wasn’t expecting to win when I woke up this morning. It feels good to be sitting here.”
An eight-car wreck with four laps to go forced the extra two laps to allow for a green-flag finish. Kenseth, who led the final 38 laps despite a variety of mechanical issues with the car, was in front with teammate Greg Biffle in second and working as his wingman to protect the lead. But in the end, neither Biffle nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to catch Kenseth. Earnhardt pulled ahead of Biffle to finish second. If that was frustrating for Earnhardt’s vast legion of fans, it wasn’t for Earnhardt, despite extending his winless streak to 130 races.
“I’m really in a good place,” Earnhardt said. “I’m not frustrated at all, I promise. I’m in a great mood.
“I know later tonight and tomorrow and the rest of the week it’s going to eat at me what I could have done to win the race.”
It was hardly a surprising finish, given the strength of the Roush Fenway Racing Fords here. Carl Edwards had won the pole, with Biffle on the front row as well and Kenseth starting fourth after winning a qualifying race on Thursday. Kenseth’s victory in the Daytona 500 was the 300th for Roush Fenway in the top three national series in Nascar.
But that was the only part of this year’s Daytona 500 that played out as expected.
After two unprecedented rain delays led to the Monday night start, with 140,000 fans showing up to fill the stands along the front stretch, the race was down to its final 43 laps when the engine on David Stremme’s No. 30 Toyota blew up and he spun out. The race was still under caution when Juan Pablo Montoya came off pit road after trying to find the cause of a vibration in his No. 42 car. He was driving down the backstretch and about to enter Turn 3 when something broke in his racecar and he suddenly went sliding sideways across the track. He slid into a truck carrying a jet dryer that was slowly driving along the outside wall of the track and blowing dust and dirt away. The truck carries as much as 200 gallons of jet fuel.
The crash with Montoya’s car burst the jet fuel tank and the fuel streamed down the track, immediately catching fire. That led to flames leaping all the way across the track. Montoya, who exited the burning car, was not harmed. The driver of the jet dryer truck was transported to a local hospital for evaluation but was not seriously injured.
“It burned the helmet and everything,” said Montoya, who finished 36th. “It’s not where you want to finish the Daytona 500.”
The race was immediately red flagged. In a sign of the times, driver Brad Keselowski tweeted while he was sitting in his racecar. Eventually, the drivers were allowed to leave their racecars and they stood together in groups on the racetrack, casually chatting as the track was repaired.
“One thing about racing,” Keselowski said, “when you think you’ve seen it all, it finds a way to show you something you never thought you’d see and that’s the case today in the Daytona 500.”
It was a stunning turn to a Speedweeks that had a bit of everything for Nascar, from a return to the pack racing and major crashes, to the first-ever postponement of the Daytona 500 because of rain and the debut of Danica Patrick, the third woman ever to run the Daytona 500.
It was not the coming-out ball that Patrick would have wanted. With pack racing back at Daytona after rules changes eliminated the odd tandem-style drafting of a year ago, the big wrecks were back, too. And the first of many Monday night happened on just the second lap of the race, collecting Patrick among others.
The “big one” occurred when part-time Cup driver Elliott Sadler tapped his No. 33 Chevrolet into five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 on the front stretch. That touched off a six-car wreck that collected Patrick, last year’s Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch in his new ride in the No. 51 with Phoenix Racing, along with Bowyer and David Ragan.
Patrick’s car sustained serious damage. She wound up more than 60 laps behind the leaders, never a factor in the race. Patrick finished 38th.
“I can’t wait to see who was the bonehead who did that,” Ragan said.
It was the third wreck in three races at Daytona for Patrick. She was bumped on the final lap of the qualifying race on Thursday, crashing hard into the wall as her racecar was destroyed. She was bumped again in the lower-level Nationwide race on Saturday, finishing 38th in that race as well.
“It’s disappointing,” she said. “I would have loved to have gotten a great finish. I would have loved to have been able to run on the lead lap there at the end. I feel back for disappointing my fans who were cheering for me; especially going out so early. But I’ll come back stronger.”