Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line first on Sunday night to win his second Daytona 500. On a soggy day full of drizzling rain and thunderstorms, NASCAR was forced to delay the 56th running of its premier race for six hours and 22 minutes.
The race, which was scheduled for an early afternoon start, lasted just long enough (36 laps) for rookie Kyle Larson to spin out and Martin Truex Jr. to blow an engine before the rain took over. Commonly known as a “red flag,” NASCAR delayed the race into the night when the storms had finally cleared.
When racing resumed under the lights, drivers were aggressive and impatient, not knowing when the race might be called early due to more weather. Fortunately, Mother Nature held off long enough for drivers to complete the remaining laps of the 200 scheduled.
On lap 145, a 12-car pile-up, known as “the big one,” took out several cars and included a hard impact into the concrete retaining wall for driver Danica Patrick. The race got back underway with 47 laps to go.
Shortly thereafter, on lap 162, another big wreck occurred, affecting eight cars. Racing was clean thereafter, until with 17 laps to go, Knoxville native Trevor Bayne took a minor spin.
With six laps to go, and NASCAR’s most prestigious trophy on the line, it was crunch time. The aggressive and impatient driving came into effect once more, as multiple cars were taken out following the third large-scale crash of the race.
The field restarted with two laps to go, and the drivers who still remained on the track had a sprint to the end in one of NASCAR’s most exciting occurrences, a green-white-checkered finish.
On the first lap, everyone made it around safely, with Earnhardt Jr. in the lead. In the final lap, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski tried their hands on NASCAR’s most popular driver, and used every maneuver in the book to try to pass him, but their efforts fell short, as Earnhardt Jr. crossed the stripe with yet another major collision in his mirror.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five, with rookie Austin Dillon having an impressive finish of ninth in his first cup start. Other notable finishers included Kevin Harvick in 13th, Kyle Busch 19th, Tony Stewart 35th, and Danica Patrick 40th.
With the win, Earnhardt Jr. also secured himself a spot in the chase, NASCAR’s version of a playoff. The chase format underwent reconstruction over the off-season, giving more credit to drivers who won races, as opposed to finishing well consistently.
It is a start that Earnhardt Jr. needed, as he seeks his first Sprint Cup championship this season.
Edit by Will Lomas