DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now a two-time Daytona 500 champion.
Junior was leading on the rain-delayed race's final restart with two laps to go and held on for the win over Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon. It's Earnhardt's first win since Michigan in 2012.
The race began on time but 38 laps in rain began to fall, halting action for more than six hours. The race restarted just after 8:30 ET.
But more on that in a moment.
The finish was not without drama, as a piece of debris – either a trash bag or a piece of tape from a damaged car – got lodged on the front of Junior's grille. He couldn't get it off. But it didn't matter.
Heck, it might have helped. A smaller grille opening can actually make these racecars go faster.
The debris certainly didn't hurt. After choosing the low side on the restart, Junior pulled ahead into Turns1 and 2 and no one was able to get alongside him. His closest pursuer was Hamlin, who made a move to his outside as the field hurtled toward the checkered flag, but the caution flag flew for a big crash behind the leaders with Junior still a few hundred yards from the stripe.
Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and others were involved in the wreck, and Busch even drove his car across the finish line in reverse to ensure that he completed every lap.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport outside from obviously accepting the championship trophy," Junior said. "I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to feel that again. And it feels just as good, if not better than the first year because of how hard we've tried year after year, after year. Running second all them years and wondering why and what we needed to do."
Junior's first Daytona 500 win came in 2004, when he beat Tony Stewart to the checkered flag. He's finished second three of the last four seasons, including last year when Jimmie Johnson won. For Junior, it's just his second victory since 2008.
Sunday night's win came in the first race for the No. 3 car since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500. Austin Dillon, the driver of the No. 3 car, started first and finished eighth, despite getting spun around in one accident and being involved in contact to spur two others.
For Junior, the win give him one thing his father never had – a second Daytona 500 victory. Earnhardt Sr. won his only Daytona 500 in 1998.
As far as the Chase, in January NASCAR announced it was expanding its playoff field to include 16 drivers. The field will include race winners and the highest ranking remaining winless drivers. Since the Chase's inception in 2004, no season has had more than 16 different winners in the first 26 races, so unless 2014 becomes an outlier, Junior's a sure bet for NASCAR's postseason.
He was also a winner in Saturday's Nationwide race. Regan Smith, the race winner, drives for JR Motorsports, Junior's team.
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