One to remember

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crosses the finish line to win his second Daytona 500, snapping a 55-race winless streak.
Photo courtesy of Pixelcrisp.

For months, hype was building as NASCAR’s Super Bowl – the Daytona 500 – was approaching.

Then Speedweeks arrived.

With it came multiple headlines including a new points system, the return of the No.3, Richard Petty versus Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart’s comeback.

These headlines, along with a new aero package which allowed closing rates to be faster and passing the leader to be easier made the excitement for the Daytona 500 more immense.

But would this year’s running of The Great American Race live up to all the hype?

We’ve seen it before, especially in this century, where a great Speedweeks doesn’t necessarily translate into a great Daytona 500.

Remember the 2003 race? The Budweiser Shootout (now Sprint Unlimited) and duel races produced exciting races. But the 2003 Daytona 500 was anything but exciting. Less than 10 lead changes during the event made battles for the lead almost nonexistent. That and the fact the race only lasted 109 laps before rain moved in made most of that Daytona 500 into a snoozer. Michael Waltrip would go on to win the shortest Daytona 500 in history.

Similar things could be said about the 2009 running of The Great American Race. That year’s Budweiser Shootout produced a over 20 lead changes, including a last lap pass. The Gatorade Duel races (now Budweiser Duels) produced tight races where passes for the lead could be made. But when Sunday rolled around, there were only nine lead changes in more than 140 laps of racing before rain forced NASCAR to call the race at 152 laps, giving Matt Kenseth the victory.

But unlike these previous races, Sunday’s Daytona 500 very much lived up to the hype.

To start, pole sitter and rookie Austin Dillon led the opening lap in the first points-paying race for the No.3 since the 2001 Daytona 500; Dillon would go on to finish 9th in the race.

After a cautious start, which saw lots of single-file racing in the first 30 laps, the race intensity picked up as the lights turned on. After restarting the race shortly after 8:30 p.m., three-wide racing was the name of the game for nearly 100 caution-free laps. During that stretch, the lead was traded more than 20 times amongst drivers like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Danica Patrick, Kasey Kahne and several others.

Then chaos broke loose.

A 12-car crash broke out on lap 145 when Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott made contact off turn 4. The crash collected Danica Patrick, Paul Menard (who lead 29 laps including the halfway lap) and two-time Daytona 500 winner, Michael Waltrip.

Another big wreck ensued on lap 163 when rookie Kyle Larson was spun by Austin Dillon in turn 4 and collected seven more cars, including Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose.

At the front, a battle for the lead emerged between Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports as Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson (last year’s winner) and Earnhardt, Jr. traded the top spot numerous times in the final 40 laps.

Two and three-wide racing for the top spot was dominating the final laps until another big crash broke out on lap 193 when Ryan Newman went crashing in turn 3, collecting five more cars. The crash forced the race into overtime with Earnhardt, Jr. in the lead and Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon trailing in 2nd and 3rd.

During the green-white-checkered, Earnhardt, Jr. lined up in the bottom row with Gordon right behind him. With a strong push from the No.24, Earnhardt, Jr. – who led a race-high 54 laps – stabilized a comfortable lead where he was able to fend off Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin in the final two lap sprint.

The victory was the 20th of Earnhardt, Jr.’s career and made him a two-time champion of The Great American Race – he also won the 2004 Daytona 500.

“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport,” Earnhardt, Jr. said in victory lane. “Aside, obviously, from accepting the trophy for the championship. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again. And it feels just as good, if not better, than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all those years, and wondering why and what we needed to do.”

While having NASCAR’s most popular driver win the biggest race is a great storyline for the sport, this event was more than just about Earnhardt, Jr.

This race had everything necessary to qualify it as one of the greatest Daytona 500s in NASCAR history and possibly the best one of this century.

Yes, rain did delay the race some 6 hours and 22 minutes, but that was a blessing in disguise for many reasons.

For starters, the race was restarted in prime time, which allowed many fans who came to the track to see it in its entirety, while also attracting more television viewers to the spectacle that would unfold.

In addition, there was another threat of rain less than 100 miles from the track when race got restarted. With another possible rain shower looming, many drivers felt it was go-time. From the moment the race got back going, the pack stayed in unison, slicing and dicing in three-wide action that was seven rows deep as no one knew if the race would go the entire distance.

Everybody was giving their all, as they were trying to position themselves for a possible race-winning run. As a result, there were 42 lead changes in the race amongst 18 drivers – one of the highest in Daytona 500 history.

While the action did turn frantic in the final 60 laps, as four different wrecks eliminated the competition, there were still enough star contenders in the running to create a dramatic finish.

And in the end, the best car won – a rare occurrence in the Daytona 500.

The 56th running of The Great American Race might have been a 10-hour marathon. Yes, the six-hour rain delay tested the patience of drivers, teams, officials and fans alike.

But the finish was well worth the wait.

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