DAYTONA BEACH (CBSMiami/AP) — Through sunshine, clouds, rain, and even tornado warnings, NASCAR fans wouldn’t be denied a winner in the 2014 Daytona 500.
After a plethora of problems plagued the race, the rain helped end a 55-race drought for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who took the checkered flag a little after 11 p.m. Sunday night.
The victory Sunday night ended a streak of futility at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished second in three of the previous four 500s.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt, who climbed from his car in Victory Lane and hugged every member of his Hendrick Motorsports crew. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good.”
As he crossed the finish line in his No. 88 Chevrolet, the few who withstood a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes screaming their support, Earnhardt euphorically radioed his crew, saying: “This is better than the first one!” He was met by Rick Hendrick after his victory lap, and the team owner climbed into the driver’s window for a ride to Victory Lane.
“The world is right right now — Dale Junior just won the Daytona 500,” teammate Jeff Gordon said. “That’s a sign it’s going to be a great season.”
Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began for a delay of more than six hours. When it resumed, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
He led six times for a race-high 54 laps — all after the rain delay — and seemed to have it under control until things got chaotic near the end. There were 42 lead changes and four multi-car accidents as the field closed in on the checkered flag.
An accident with seven laps to go triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 — Earnhardt’s father’s number making its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 — set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.
Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.
Then an accident farther back involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.
“We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart,” Earnhardt said. “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
The delays hit absurd levels as Fox Sports tried to fill the air time with a replay of the 2013 race that hundreds of thousands did not understand wasn’t a live broadcast. Social media exploded with congratulatory tweets for last year’s winner, Johnson, who posted on his account: “I hear I won the #Daytona500? Haha! I also have friends confused and texting congratulations to me.”
Fellow drivers had fun with the widespread error, too.
“Wait a minute! I’m confused, did @JimmieJohnson win or not?” Bowyer tweeted.
Plenty of fans on Twitter were confused throughout the replay, tweeting along as if the race was live. Deadspin ran some of them under the headline, “Scores Of Idiots Don’t Realize Fox Is Airing Last Year’s Daytona 500.”
Even NASCAR couldn’t resist jokingly weighing in on the confusion.
“Congrats @JimmieJohnson amazing,” tweeted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations.
Piling onto the strange story line, Fox’s rain-delayed coverage was sponsored by the movie “Noah,” which opens March 28 and stars Russell Crowe as the title character who builds an arc to save creation from a massive flood.
When the cars finally got back on track, Earnhardt took off. He had some challenges, particularly from the Roush Fenway Racing duo of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, but he managed to break free every time it mattered.
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