DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This is what the Daytona 500 is all about – surprises.
You don't have to be a big name to win NASCAR's biggest race, which is more of a crapshoot than anything. Heck, it took Dale Earnhardt 20 tries to win the 500 and in his day no one was better at Daytona than him.
Matt Kenseth's win Sunday in the 51st running of the Great American Race is as surprising as any of them, partly because he led only one green-flag lap – the last one – and partly because that last one was Lap 152 of what was supposed to be a 200-lap event.
As it turned out, rain was the push Kenseth needed to win at Daytona. Had it come 30 seconds earlier, Elliott Sadler, out of job a month ago and ready to go to court to save it, would have won. Or had it come 30 seconds later, Kevin Harvick, who's made a habit of winning races at Daytona late, might have overtaken Kenseth.
But as it happened, rain, which cupped the Daytona area like a crescent moon most of the afternoon and into the evening, came just after Kenseth passed Sadler and before Harvick could make a run for the lead.
And that's how Kenseth became your 2009 Daytona 500 champion.
"I was a little nervous because it was Elliott and then Reed [Sorenson] and [AJ] Allmendinger and all the teammates lined up there," explained Kenseth, who didn't win a race last season, "and I was able to get outside Elliott a little bit, and our car was honestly a fair amount quicker than his and I was able to get a run on him and get by him."
Some will say so, but as they say, that's racin'.
Weather is always a factor when you're competing outdoors. And though NASCAR could have held off a little longer than the 16 minutes it did between the time the rain came and the time the race was called, it did the right thing. The rain continued to fall long after the weather-induced checkered flag flew and NASCAR certainly didn't want to crown the champion of its biggest race in the wee hours of the morning (like it did in the July race a few years ago).
So call it what you will, but it is what it is.
That one came on Lap 125. To that point, Busch had led 88 laps.
Afterward, Busch was none too pleased with Earnhardt, who had spent most of his day rallying from self-induced pit-road mishaps.
"I think we were the best car," Busch said. "It's unfortunate that a guy that's messed up his whole day on pit road and screwed up, that he has to make our day worse."
In his defense, Junior blamed it on Brian Vickers, who appeared to block Earnhardt just before Junior tagged Vickers' bumper, sparking the melee.
What was left was a bunch of non-factors who suddenly found themselves as contenders. If there is a bitter pill to swallow, this is it. Yes, Kenseth, who did run near the front for much of the race, won, but his victory has a "musical chairs" feeling to it. He just happened to be the guy standing in front of the empty seat when the music stopped.
It's not the most exhilarating way to kick off a season, especially not the so-called Super Bowl of racing, but again, it is what it is.
So how do you celebrate a boring ending?
"Oh man, I'm going to paint the town plaid," Kenseth joked.
- Dale Earnhardt