And Time Stood Still: Earnhardt Jr. wins Daytona 500 after six-hour Rain Delay

The Daytona 500 is the pinnacle on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ schedule. It’s the only sport that begins with its biggest event, and it rarely disappoints. With the NASCAR Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series leaving much to be desire, the top-tier had something to prove. What better way to do that than impress on the sport’s biggest day?

Unfortunately, the remarkable stuff would have to wait.

The No. 3 brought the field to the green, and it looked like races seen Friday and Saturday; two distinct lines formed. However, there was a lot of passing and actual racing taking place. It was easy to see that this was going to be a different race. The restrictor plate package is a stellar addition to what has been a lackluster style of racing within the last year. The tone was instantly set for the race.

Rookie Kyle Larson spun early. As heartbreaking as it was, the expiration of Martin Truex Jr.’s engine was even more saddening. In what he claimed was “his best chance to win the Daytona 500,” Truex was out on lap 31 after winning the outside pole. The caution came a lap later for oil that he laid out on the track.

And then the rain came. Lap 38 brought the red flag, and the red flag brought the wait. That wait was six hours, 21 minutes, and 40 seconds long. Despite that fact, NASCAR fans waited, through a downpour that included lighting and a tornado warning. There’s no denying that the fans are dedicated, as is the sanctioning body and the track. A sincere thank you is in order to NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway for sticking with it and getting the race in.

The racing commenced at 8:53 p.m. ET, over seven hours after the original green flag flew, on lap 47. Lead changes took place, constant swapping and fidgeting. Pit road brought woes for many, including Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne. Busch dragged an air gun out of the pits, and Kahne spun exiting off pit road. Things got weirder; Aric Almirola took equipment out of the box, and Tony Stewart’s engine went sour. David Ragan also retired to the garage.

One interesting incident involved Kahne yet again. He was nabbed for speeding while trying to avoid a collision with Michael Annett, who was spinning down the pit entrance. As another round of pit stops went underway, NASCAR’s decision to implement the penalty was questioned. The focus soon shifted to Clint Bowyer, who’s motor blew and ended his day.

The first Big One took place on lap 145, caused by Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott connecting while three wide. The incident also included, Almirola, Kahne, Austin Dillon, Michael Waltrip, David Gilliland, Paul Menard, Justin Allgaier, Josh Wise, Marcos Ambrose, and Parker Kligerman. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led as the yellow flew.

After Earnhardt Jr. battled with Greg Biffle for the top spot for a while, a second Big One occurred, sucking up Larson, Ambrose, Annett, Kahne, Brian Vickers, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, and Ryan Newman. Kahne earn another penalty, and NASCAR held Vickers on pit road for two laps. Things were unraveling.

Nerves were made of Jell-o by the time the laps had dwindled down to seven, and another wreck made an appearance. Newman, Allgaier, Scott, Kligerman, Cole Whitt, and Terry Labonte were involved. The remaining cars rode around under the yellow, and a piece of bear bond had flown off Newman’s car. Earnhardt Jr. rode over the piece, and it attached itself to his grille. Flashbacks of a sea gull slamming into his father’s car rose.

How was this going to end?

They were the most insane three laps of every NASCAR fan’s life. Anticipation. Fear. Thrill.

Coming to the checkered, the yellow flag made another appearance. Jamie McMurray, Harvick, the youngest Busch, and Reed Sorenson.

It froze the field. And time stood still.

Earnhardt Jr. won the 56th Daytona 500, almost guaranteeing him a spot in NASCAR’s new and improved Chase format.

Point Standings after the Daytona 500

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (–)
2. Denny Hamlin (-5)
3. Brad Keselowski (-6)
4. Jeff Gordon (-8)
4. Jimmie Johnson (-8)
6. Matt Kenseth (-10)
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-11)
7. Greg Biffle (-11)
9. Austin Dillon (-12)
10. Casey Mears (-14)
10. Joey Logano (-14)
12. Kevin Harvick (-17)
13. Jamie McMurray (-18)
14. Bobby Labonte (-19)
15. Reed Sorenson (-20)
15. Carl Edwards (-20)

FAN REACTION: It’s almost unfair to ask fans to grade this race because of who won, but the truth was there: so many NASCAR fans enjoyed the race, despite the rain delay. Some were upset with the amount of wrecks. That’s a result of the race and the new spoiler. Twitter was also outspoken about Kahne’s incident with Annett; the consensus was that he didn’t deserve to be penalized. However, a computer monitors pit road, and that can’t be changed, says NASCAR. This may need some reviewing. Once again, the dedication shown to getting the race in doesn’t go unnoticed, and I speak for all NASCAR fans when I say that passion means everything. Thank you Fox, NASCAR, and Daytona.

Ten years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500. He returned to Victory Lane after a taxing race that included the longest rain delay in race history.

What a way to welcome NASCAR back.

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