Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Daytona 500

jutter@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 23, 2014 

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Dale Earnhardt Jr. again.

A multicar wreck erupted as Earnhardt charged to the checkered flag while holding off Denny Hamlin, and the caution flag secured his victory in Sunday night’s rain-delayed Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

The victory is Earnhardt’s second in the Great American Race and his first win on a superspeedway – the tracks on which he once dominated – since the 2004 season.

“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know if I would ever get to feel that again, but it feels just as good. It’s better than the first because of how hard we tried year after year running second.”

As an added bonus, because of changes made to NASCAR’s championship system in the offseason, Earnhardt is all but guaranteed a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Brad Keselowski was third, Jeff Gordon finished fourth and Jimmie Johnson was fifth.

Under threatening skies, the race got off as scheduled with pole-winner Austin Dillon leading the first lap before Hamlin took over.

Hamlin, however, got some debris stuck on his front grille and was forced to pull out of line to lower his engine temperature. That allowed Kurt Busch to move into the lead.

Kyle Larson slapped the wall hard and brought out the race’s first caution on Lap 23.

The race restarted on Lap 27 with Paul Menard in the lead, followed by Kurt Busch.

The engine on Martin Truex Jr.’s car expired bringing out a caution on Lap 32. Truex was forced to the garage and out of the race. During the caution, it began to rain and NASCAR displayed the red flag at 2:12 p.m., after the completion of 38 laps.

After several storms, including two tornado warnings, the race restarted at 8:53 p.m. – almost 6 1/2 hours later.

The race returned to green flag conditions on Lap 47, with Kyle Busch in the lead followed by Kasey Kahne and Hamlin.

During a round of green-flag pit stops, Kahne spun on the exit to pit road and fell a lap down. Kyle Busch also lost a lap when he was penalized for removing equipment from pit road.

Once green flag stops were completed, Paul Menard led the way on Lap 90 followed by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

After 100 of 200 laps, Menard continued to lead, followed by Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.

Shortly after another round of green-flag stops , Harvick nipped Brian Scott, who then hit Aric Almirola and ignited a 13-car wreck on Lap 145.

On the restart on Lap 154, Greg Biffle took over the lead, followed by Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

Over the next four laps, Earnhardt and Biffle traded the lead three times, with Earnhardt getting around Biffle on Lap 155 to take the lead for the second time in the race.

Dillon made contact with Larson in Turn 4 on Lap 162 to bring out the fourth caution of the race. This incident collected 10 cars.

On the restart on Lap 169, Earnhardt maintained the lead followed by Biffle, Edwards, Johnson and Kenseth.

With 20 laps to go, Edwards moved out to the lead with Kenseth, Earnhardt, Biffle and Jeff Gordon close behind.

Bayne wrecked on Lap 184 to bring out the fifth caution of the race. On the restart on Lap 188, Earnhardt led the way followed by Johnson, Harvick, Reed Sorenson and Keselowski.

“This race was car was awesome,” Earnhardt said. “We showed all night long how good a car we had in it’s these guys right here put it together in the shop. We were fighting off battles after battles. We got a little hookup from Jeff (Gordon) on the last restart and just took care of it from there.”

Dillon made contact with Ryan Newman on Lap 195 to bring out the sixth caution of the race. On the restart on Lap 199, Earnhardt held the lead followed by Keselowski, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Edwards.

“This is amazing,” Earnhardt said. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted, man, because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”

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