Only one in the 43-driver field can take home the Harley J. Earl Trophy from Daytona. The rest of the field will take home memories, some to be treasured and others best forgotten.
Being a winner of the Great American Race is a prestigious title they will carry throughout their life. Many dreams are fulfilled—and shattered—at Daytona.
Just making the race is an accomplishment, and the events that often unfold can be daring and dramatic.
The 54th running of the Daytona 500 is in the books. The return of pack racing gave the fans what they wanted, and other odd events brought them even more.
The two-car tandems still worked because it is just plain faster, but it had to be brief to avoid the overheating problems inherent in pack racing.
With the return of some semblance of old-school, restrictor-plate racing, we saw many feats of daring drama and, of course, accidents.
Certain drivers were the focus of attention for specific reasons—some good and some not so good. Let's take a look at some of the best performances in the 2012 Daytona 500.
Elliott Sadler wants to get back to racing in the Cup series after stepping down to being a regular in the NASCAR Nationwide series.
He got a one-race deal to drive a Richard Childress Racing-prepared Chevrolet in the Daytona 500.
It took only one lap for Sadler to become perhaps a bit too impatient, as he gave Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48, a tap to the rear.
Chaos ensued, and the victims were not only Johnson, but Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan.
Sadler scored a 27th-place finish, while Johnson finished 42nd with a DNF to kick off his season.
Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the Target No. 42 Chevrolet, knew he had problems with his car, and after vibration issues forced a pit stop, he returned to the track.
Montoya still knew something was wrong with the rear end or transmission, yet he was barreling toward the third turn when he suddenly veered to the right and into a safety truck equipped with a jet dryer.
The jet fuel and diesel in the truck triggered an inferno on the track and Montoya's car burned up after the impact.
It was one of the most bizarre scenes in a NASCAR race, but the driver of the safety truck and Montoya were not injured.
The clean-up crew was nothing less than stellar.
From the firefighters who fought the dangerous blaze, to those who scrubbed Tide into the surface, to the ones who blow-dried and spread the repair material across the surface, all did an amazing job of getting the track race-ready.
Though it took two hours, it was well choreographed and allowed the race to continue safely.
When the Daytona 500 was red-flagged after the third turn, the field was parked on the backstretch.
Drivers exited their cars and gathered to chat.
Brad Keselowski was the star of the two-hour gathering with his cell phone. He was busy Tweeting pictures and picked up an incredible 100,000 or so new followers.
Danica Patrick's long-awaited debut in the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race came to a crashing halt after the first lap.
For yet another time, Patrick was caught up in an accident that was not of her making. Though her performance was not exactly bold—she is a racer, after all—she was able to maintain her restraint.
The No. 10 GoDaddy.com car was taken to the garage for repairs.
Patrick returned to the track on Lap 66 and just practiced seat time, attempting to stay out of harm's way during the remainder of the race.
She finished in 38th place and will make her next Cup appearance at Darlington in May.
Kurt Busch had a good chance to be a contender in the Daytona 500 with a strong superspeedway car out of Phoenix Racing.
He was a dark horse to win, but a strong one with Hendrick Motorsports horsepower.
Busch was one of those caught up in the crash on the second lap. His battered car was still running at the end of the race, and he was the last car running, finishing in 39th.
Busch hung in and fought for the few points he garnered. He kept a positive attitude, something he might not have done under the same circumstances when he was driving for Penske Racing.
Trevor Bayne was the surprise winner of the 53rd Daytona 500 with the No. 21 Ford out of Wood Brothers Racing.
He began the 54th edition of the Great American Race with a strong Ford and high hopes of contending for yet another win.
Bayne was another victim of the crash. He was running at the end of the race, having completed 164 laps, and scored with a 35th-place finish.
Bayne is only running a partial Cup schedule and badly needed a strong finish to perhaps lure some additional sponsorship dollars.
The three Roush Fenway Racing teams with drivers Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle looked to be contenders for the win with their formidable Fords.
Edwards started on the pole, but ran closer to mid-pack most of the race. He really didn't contend for the win and finished in eighth position.
It was Kenseth and Biffle who together led 93 laps. Biffle, driver of the No. 16, and Kenseth, in the No. 17, worked together much of the second half of the race.
In the end, it looked like Biffle would make a last-lap attempt to pass the leading Kenseth, but he did not. Kenseth took the checkered flag with his Best Buy Ford for his Daytona 500 win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. served notice in the 54th running of the Daytona 500 that he is ready to contend for wins, despite his winless streak reaching 130 races.
Junior stayed out of trouble, and on the final lap he stuck to Greg Biffle, expecting him to pull around Matt Kenseth and go for the win.
When Biffle couldn't make the pass and Kenseth was pulling away, Earnhardt made a run for the lead on the high side, but it was too late. He did score his sixth second-place finish since his last win.
Normally when a race gets postponed to a Monday, the turnout in the grandstands is sparse. It was not the case with this race, as fans still packed the grandstands.
The 54th Daytona 500 was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, but finished in the early morning hours of Tuesday.
Fans endured the rain and all the waiting until the scheduled start at 7:00 p.m. EST on Monday night. The race was on track to be finished reasonably quick until the fiery crash with Juan Montoya and a jet dryer.
The fans still hung in for the two-hour delay, not knowing if the race would continue. They were determined to see the final 40 laps, which concluded near 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Kudos to the fans who turned out for the Great American Race despite all the problems that tested them.