Dale Earnhardt Jr. had not won the Daytona 500 since 2004. A decade later, he delighted NASCAR fans with a thrilling victory in the marquee race, which was delayed for six hours because of rain and even a tornado warning. It made for an evening (and early morning) full of fan adulation and driver admiration for the popular racer's accomplishment.
Earnhardt outlasted Denny Hamlin and third-place driver Brad Keselowski for the landmark win. He maintained control of first place for the final 19 laps and crossed the finish line under caution at 11:18 p.m. ET, almost 11 hours after the race began. A piece of debris was lodged in the grille of his car, but that didn't seem to hinder him.
Earnhardt was understandably ecstatic after the win and let out a loud "Wooo!" as he entered the media area after the race. Per Nate Ryan of USA Today, Earnhardt gave a history lesson of sorts: "I bet someone hasn't come in here and screamed in 30 years. But they used to!"
It had been a decade since his last win at the season opener, and the longest rain delay in the history of the race was not going to deter him.
Hamlin finished second, and he admitted Earnhardt's victory had numerous significant implications, via Ryan:
It's big for a lot of reasons. He's obviously going into the last year with (crew chief Steve Letarte). They going to start making Chase plans now. They're very flexible in what they can try. As far as the race win, it's obviously very significant that any Earnhardt wins at Daytona.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His famous No. 3 car was retired at that point, and coincidentally, No. 3 made its first appearance back on the track driven by rookie Austin Dillon on Sunday, grandson of the legendary Richard Childress. Dillon finished ninth.
With the late-night victory Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed his father, who won the Great American Race only once in 1998.
The sister of Earnhardt Jr., Kelley Earnhardt Miller, gave voice to the concern on the mind of many racing fans at the restart with two laps remaining, via USA Today's Jeff Gluck: "I just didn't want him to be second again, you know?"
He knew well the feeling of being a bridesmaid and not a bride, finishing second in the Daytona 500 three of the last four years. He also finished second five times during the 2013 season, and this victory snapped a winless streak of 55 races in the Sprint Cup Series.
It puts Earnhardt in great shape for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and nicely sets up the rest of his season. With Letarte slated to become an NBC analyst next year, there is added pressure to succeed now.
As Earnhardt told Ryan, "We're going for the jugular this year."
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Chevrolet|
|7||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Ford|
|43||Martin Truex Jr.||Chevrolet|
As for the rain, race officials were just happy to be able to get the race in before Sunday turned into Monday. In 2012, the race was postponed a day for the first time in the 54-year history. Then a collision with a jet dryer truck caused a massive fire on the track that delayed the race even further.
FOX aired a replay of last year's race during Sunday's rain delay, causing confusion among many fans despite the crawl along the bottom stating that it was a replay because the 2014 race was in a delay.
Jimmie Johnson won last year's Daytona, and he received double kudos on Sunday when fans and friends thought the replay on FOX was a live race.
Johnson is always a threat to win, but instead Earnhardt wrote a new chapter and added to his legacy.
Between the protracted rain delay, the scramble to the finish after a late wreck and Earnhardt Jr. finishing first in the same race when his father's No. 3 car returned to the track, it was a Daytona 500 that will linger in memory for decades to come.
Jeff Gordon has been racing since 1992, and he admitted that what he witnessed on Sunday was unprecedented, via Ryan: "I don't know what happened. The sun went down and the rain went away and the track dried and everyone switched their brains to 'this is a 10-lap shootout.' It was unbelievable. I've never seen a Daytona 500 like that."
Once the weather and the track were willing, Earnhardt sped past the finish line to deliver a rousing and long-awaited victory.