DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The history of the Daytona 500 has been chock-full of unforeseen drama right from Day 1. It took officials three days examining photographs and video recordings to determine Lee Petty won the inaugural event. The 1976 edition saw David Pearson and Richard Petty, running 1-2 through the final turn, wreck each other as they roared toward the checkered flag. Two years ago, a pothole opened up in the middle of Turns 1 and 2, halting the race twice.
None of that, however, holds a flamethrower (literally) to what happened in Monday night's 54th running of The Great American Race when Juan Pablo Montoya plowed into a jet dryer on Lap 160, spilling 200 gallons of fuel onto the track that immediately sparked into a massive fire that halted the race for more than two hours.
The fire, which lasted between five and 10 minutes, was so intense it melted a strip of pavement that necessitated a hoard of track officials – using water, speedy dry and, yes, Tide – to get Daytona International Speedway race ready again.
Eventually, there was a winner.
Matt Kenseth, who won back in 2009, claimed his second Daytona 500 victory thanks to a push from teammate Greg Biffle. It was Biffle who blocked a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt Jr., who tried to make a desperation pass at the end but came up short, finishing second, extending his winless streak to 130 races.
"The Roush cars are just really strong, they showed that all week," Earnhardt said. "I'm happy for Matt. He's going to need that for his college fund. They're in good shape now.
For Kenseth and his Roush Fenway teammates, it marked the completion of a stellar Daytona experience. Carl Edwards was the polesitter, Kenseth won his Duel 150 qualifier, and Biffle finished third in the 500.
"Awesome, man, awesome!" Kenseth screamed over his radio as he crossed the finish line.
Making it even sweeter was the fact that Kenseth appeared he might be out of contention in the early going. He lost radio communication with his team, had his tachometer break and at one point his engine grew so hot water was spewing out from under his hood.
"We had a lot of problems and almost ended up a lap down," Kenseth said. "These guys did a great job. They never panicked, and I think they enjoyed their day more because they couldn't hear me on the radio with my radio problems. My guys did a great job."
Rain forced the first-ever postponement of the Daytona 500, leading to a Monday night, prime-time edition of The Great American Race.
It's not how NASCAR drew it up, but they'll take it.
"Certainly you like to try to make some lemonade out of lemons," NASCAR president Mike Helton said Monday morning. "Ideally the race would have started yesterday as scheduled, and it would have been sunny, and we would have been celebrating a Daytona 500 champion today, but under the circumstances we're just trying to make the best decisions collectively."
For most of the 10 days of Speedweeks – until Mother Nature began to steal the show Sunday morning – all eyes were focused on the ground wherever Danica Patrick walked or drove. This 500 marked her debut in NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series. Her switch from open wheel to stock car racing years in the making, Patrick started 29th, then promptly got wrecked on Lap 2 when Elliott Sadler spun Jimmie Johnson to set off a multi-car incident.
It was the third time in three races that Patrick got taken out in a wreck that was not her fault. After her crew worked furiously to repair her battered race car, Patrick returned to the track 62 laps later and wound up finishing 38th.
"I just wish the beginning of the race could've been the nice single-file line that it was when I got back out there," Patrick said after the race. "I did finish the race but just in that darn 38th position."
The 54th running saw the return of the 43-car pack style of racing that's become famous at Daytona. While it increases the odds of a multi-car crash – something Patrick now knows all too well – it's the preferred style of most drivers and fans.
Aside from the Lap-2 wreck that also collected Johnson, defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and David Ragan, the race played out relatively incident free. That is, until Montoya hit the jet dryer.
[ Dan Wetzel: Lap 2 wreck ends Danica Patrick's Daytona 500 dream early ]
With the race under caution, Montoya headed to the pits after feeling a vibration in his car. When his crew found nothing, he roared back onto the track in an effort to catch up to the pack before the race went back to green-flag conditions. But just as he entered Turn 3, he felt the vibration again, something broke and Montoya's No. 42 went spinning right into the back of a jet dryer, which was blowing debris off the track.
"I have hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer? I mean, no," Montoya said. "I didn't think about the truck, I thought, 'I'm actually hitting the jet and it's not going to be fun.' Before I got there I was thinking, 'This thing is going to be on fire pretty bad,' and it was."
The two-hour delay pushed the Daytona 500 into its third day. Scheduled to start at 1:19 p.m. ET on Sunday, it finally ended at 12:55 a.m. Tuesday morning.
"Thing that went through my mind is that NASCAR just can't catch a break. We're trying to do deliver and just had some unfortunate things happen, such as a rain delay, pothole in the track," Earnhardt said. "We're a good sports and just trying to give a good product. It's unfortunate that our biggest event was delayed."
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