It took more time than anybody expected, but by the end of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the one making the victory lap and popping the champagne on the podium. It was Earnhardt’s second victory at the Daytona International Speedway—after quite the hiatus:
Dale Earnhardt Jr wins his 2nd Daytona 500 and first since 2004. The 9 years is the longest stretch ever between wins at this race.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 24, 2014
To say the 2014 installment of the Daytona 500 was memorable would be an understatement. There was a rain delay, a confused viewing audience, two winners, multiple wrecks and an exciting finish—all of the ingredients for a captivating NASCAR race. Are you confused yet? Let me take you through the biggest moments and clarify some of aforementioned “ingredients.”
Before we recap, here's how the race ended:
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Hendrick Motorsports||200||54|
|2||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||200||16|
|3||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||200||13|
|4||Jeff Gordon||Hendrick Motorsports||200||0|
|5||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||200||15|
|6||Matt Kenseth||Joe Gibbs Racing||200||0|
|7||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Roush Fenway Racing||200||0|
|8||Greg Biffle||Roush Fenway Racing||200||8|
|9||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||200||1|
|10||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||200||0|
Let’s start at the very beginning—a very good place to start. The drivers only made it through 38 laps before heavy rain halted the race…for more than six hours.
With so much air time to fill, Fox Sports showed a replay of last year’s Daytona 500. It was a nice way to give the people what they wanted given the circumstances—except for the fact that not everyone got the memo.
Hordes of fans thought they were watching live action, which led plenty of people to congratulate Jimmie Johnson—last year’s winner—on his “victory.”
Johnson had fun with the situation and tried to clear up the confusion via Twitter:
After the enormous delay, the race officials deemed it safe to get back on the track, and the Great American Race resumed. It didn’t go off without a hitch, though—at least not for some.
There were some struggles by some of the biggest names, including Tony Stewart who had some engine troubles:
Later on in the race, it was Clint Bowyer who was slowed by car trouble:
While it was disappointing to see a big name like Stewart forced out of contention due to technical difficulties, the fans got a tremendous show.
There were 42 lead changes in the race, and here are some of the big-name drivers who (momentarily) took their place at the head of the pack. There was Danica Patrick in Lap 88:
Later on, it was the defending champion that looked like he would win the race for the second time that day:
Maybe it was the close nature of the race, the slick track or maybe it was just something in the air, but the racing was close, competitive and highly entertaining. It wasn’t a wide-open, single-file race but a tightly packed cluster of drivers duking it out for positioning:
The concentrated action cranked up the intensity, but the drivers weren’t just competing with each other—they were racing against time. At least, they thought they were. Rain caused a delay in the 38th lap, but the race would end if another rain delay occurred after Lap 100, with the winner being whoever was in first place at the time of the delay.
Late in the race, drivers were notified that more rain was headed toward Daytona, which kicked up the adrenaline another notch:
Ryan McGee of ESPN set the scene beautifully:
We've officially entered the survival mode segment of the race. #Daytona500— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) February 24, 2014
Unfortunately, not everyone lasted until the end of the race. There were four multi-car wrecks in the race, but none were bigger or more impactful than the 12-car wreck in Lap 146:
Here’s a video of the incident:
As the end drew near, it was a war of attrition, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski battled to the very end.
With five laps to go, Junior took the lead, and he’d end the race in first place.
Before the race, Jimmie Johnson singled out Earnhardt as the driver to beat, according to Lars Anderson of Sports Illustrated:
Dale [Earnhardt] is absolutely going to have a very, very good year. He's in a good place in his life. He's comfortable with who he is and what he wants. And when it comes to Daytona, he's just a natural here. On Sunday he's going to be one of the guys to beat.
Anderson went on to reveal why the Daytona 500 is such a special race for Earnhardt Jr.:
Earnhardt loves Daytona, even though it was the site of the worst day of his life. Thirteen winters ago, his father died on a last-lap crash in the 500. But that horrible memory—still hauntingly vivid in Little E's mind—has made Daytona sacred ground to him. Every time he drives a rental car through the Turn 4 tunnel to enter the infield, he senses the spirit of his old man. "It's almost like I feel closer to my dad when I'm at Daytona," Earnhardt has told me. "I try to think of the good times he had here."
Earnhardt’s emotion was evident after he won, as he was extremely excited with the result:
The rest of competition was nothing but class in celebrating Earnhardt's emotional win—like Kyle Busch:
Congrats to Dale JR! Big race to win! Wish'd we made it to the end and finished where we deserved after battling all day but on 2 PHX.— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) February 24, 2014
In the sport’s biggest race, Earnhardt Jr.’s unbridled joy was the lasting image of the 2014 Daytona 500, but there were plenty of other memories that will live on for years. The 2014 Sprint Cup season opened in stupendous fashion with plenty of NASCAR's biggest names in it until the very end.
If this Daytona 500 is anything to go by, NASCAR fans are in for a spectacular year of racing.