After beating fire and rain, Matt Kenseth was able to hold off his Roush-Fenway Ford team-mate Greg Biffle and a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the delayed Daytona 500 on Monday night. Once again it all came down to a green-white-checker finish, but Biffle, who started on the front row and ran up front all night, was unable to attempt a pass for the win, and eventually lost second to Earnhardt on the run to the flag.
Joe Gibbs Racing man Denny Hamlin bounced back from an underwhelming 2011 to finish fourth, ahead of Richard Childress trio Jeff Burton, Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick, with polesitter Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and veteran Mark Martin filling out the top 10.
For Kenseth, who also won the rain-shortened 2009 event and triumphed in the Gatorade Duel, the win capped off a difficult off-season saw him loose his mother, and several major sponsors from his #17 team. It didn't exactly come easily. Radiator cooling problems almost cost him a lap early on, and a faulty radio hampered him throughout, but the wily 39-year-old drafted back into contention to take an emotional win.
“We had a lot of problems and almost ended up a lap down,” said Kenseth. “I had my radio break and my tach break and we pushed all the water out and had to come in and put water in it. 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.”
“I have to give a lot of credit to Doug Yates and the guys at the engine shop. The two of us together [Kenseth and Biffle] could make some unbelievable speed. I have to thank Greg. We worked together really good all day long. He had a really fast car all day as well.”
In a Speedweeks that saw several big accidents for Jeff Gordon in the Shootout, Danica Patrick in the Gatorade Duels, Miguel Paludo and Joey Coulter in the Trucks and no less than three multi-car pileups of nine cars or more in the Nationwide Series, the 500 itself was always set to be a crash-strewn event. And so it proved; in one of the strangest 500s of all time, the first in its 54 year history to take place on a Monday, Juan Pablo Montoya caused a lengthy delay to proceedings by bizarrely crashing into a jet dryer while under caution. After a trip to the pits, the Colombian was in the process of getting back up to speed when a suspected transmission failure on his #42 Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing Chevrolet turned him hard right into the drying truck. Thankfully both Montoya and the jet dryer operator, Duane Barnes, were unharmed, although more than a little shaken.
“Something failed in the rear of the car, and the car just spun into the jet dryer,” Montoya explained. “I left the pits and felt a really weird vibration, and I came back in and checked the rear end and [they] said it was OK, and I got into the back straight and we were going in fourth gear but wasn’t going that fast.”
“Every time I got on the gas, I could feel the rear squeezing. When I was telling the spotter to have a look how the rear was moving, the car just turned right.”
The collision caused the 200 gallons of jet fuel in the dryer to ignite, engulfing the track in flames and causing it to melt in places. At this point, with rain looming and with more than half distance having been completed, it looked unlikely that the race would restart, with Dave Blaney out in front, Landon Cassill with the brand new BK Racing team second, and Tony Raines third in a one-off entry for Front Row Motorsports, each of them having elected not to pit under caution. Just when a week of shocks, following rookie John King's win in the trucks and James Buescher's improbable win (having begun the last lap 11th) in the Nationwide Series, looked on the cards, the call came for the race to be restarted.
Sadly for Blaney, who raced his way into the 500 in the Tommy Baldwin Racing #36 after the top 35 points he earned last year were transferred to Danica, he was caught up in the accident two laps from the end which took out Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Bud Shootout winner Kyle Busch, necessitating the green-white-checker.
The race began in dramatic style when five time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was spun into the wall on lap two by the returning Nationwide regular Elliott Sadler, driving a fourth RCR entry. With nowhere to go, David Ragan ploughed into the door of the #48, while Patrick, making her Cup debut, and defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne were also involved.
“I’m just really, really bummed to start the season this way,” Johnson said. “To work as hard as everyone did at Hendrick Motorsports to get this Lowe’s Chevrolet and to have it barely complete two-and-a-half miles of green flag racing is pretty sad. We’ll just go on and go to Phoenix and set our marks on winning that race.”
Hendrick Motorsports' day would only get worse, with engine failure ruling out treble Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, and Kasey Kahne proving unable to avoid the spinning car of 2010 Daytona 500 champ Jamie McMurray late on. Only the much maligned Earnhardt, who has not won a race since 2008, was around at the finish to uphold Hendrick's honour.
“I told Greg that I was going to push him on that last restart, and I pushed him, and I thought he was waiting and waitingâ€¦ he looked like might be trying to make a move on the back-straightaway, but nothing materialised there,” Earnhardt said.
“Then we come off four and I kind of waited until the last minute for him to have his opportunity to try and pass Matt, but nothing was happening so I just pulled out and went around him.”
But by that point it was too late to catch Kenseth, who romped to victory by a comfortable two tenths of a second.