At the end of a winter in which the return of a car carrying the #3 to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series grid it was the son of the man who made the number part of series folklore who captured the first victory of the year at the Daytona 500.
Despite a scare when he picked up a piece of tape across the radiator grill during the final caution Dale Earnhardt Jr. easily held off a chasing pack led by Denny Hamlin through the two laps of a green-white-checkered finish to win NASCAR’s biggest race for the second time, snapping a winless streak that extends back to June 2012 in the process.
As well as for the popular win the 2014 Daytona 500 will be remembered for a 6 hour, 20 minute red flag for thunderstorms during which time the area around Daytona International Speedway as subject to tornado warnings. The rain – always expected, though perhaps not as early nor as ferociously as it materialised – started to fall during the second caution period of the race, brought out when Martin Truex Jr.’s engine blew on back straight, compounding a disappointing Furniture Row Racing debut for the driver who had been forced to give up his outside pole starting spot after being caught up in a crash in Thursday’s Budweiser Duels.
The red flag came out with Kyle Busch in the lead on lap 39, bringing to an end a segment of the race which the Busch brother led 23 laps of, Hamlin another 10 laps, his nine lap stint on point after he took the lead from pole sitter Austin Dillon on lap two prematurely cut short when he pulled back into the pack to dislodge some debris from the nose of his #11 Toyota.
While the rain delay poured a gulf between the opening 39 laps and the rest of the race in terms of the drivers who were swapping the lead the race was almost split into three parts. Once the race restarted under the lights, but with the spectre of rain in the forecast still lurking, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Kyle Busch and Hamlin remained factors in the fight for the lead, the team continuing to look strong at Daytona after sweeping the two Budweiser Duels. However Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard also took the lead, Menard adding 24 laps to his laps lead count that lay at five during the rain delay.
Having looked so strong in single car qualifying Menard was the only one of the Earnhardt-Childress engine drivers to show strongly in the race. Truex bowed out early, but not before Earnhardt-Ganassi rookie Kyle Larson has spun on his own after cutting down the right-rear tyre on the #42 vacated by Juan Montoya. The resulting caution has long lasting effects, those drivers that pitted during the opening caution and/or before or after the stoppage meaning that there were at least three pitstop schedules at work as the field settled into a 100 lap green flag stint.
During the long green flag stint the field was thinned slightly more. Clint Bowyer suffered an engine failure – telling TV crews they his team “broke [their] toy”. Tony Stewart was also taken out of contention a fuel pressure problem leading to the replacement of the fuel cell.
The green flag stops did not go smoothly for everyone either. Both Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch had to serve penalties after pulling equipment from their pitboxes, Almirola a jack, Busch an air gun. Kasey Kahne drive through for pit lane was nothing unusual but the moments leading up to it were as he had to accelerate to avoid the spinning #7 car of Michael Annett who lost control as he tried to follow Kahne to the pits.
The cycling of pitstops gave Danica Patrick the chance to lead in a second consecutive Daytona 500, with rookie Justin Allgaier and Michael Waltrip also able to lead laps.
All three would be involved in the first multi-car crash of the race that brought the long green flag stint to an end. Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott made contact approaching the tri-oval triggering accident that rippled through the pack. Almirola took heavy damage as did Paul Menard, but it was Patrick and Waltrip who had the worst of the accident, the former spinning into the tri-oval wall.
While the crash brought the second act of the three-act race to a close it was not before a preview of what was to come for the remainder of the race.
Though he had run in the top ten for much of the race Earnhardt Jr. had taken the lead for the first time on lap 131 before Carl Edwards led a lap only to lose out to Earnhardt Jr. again as the two drafting lines duelled for the lead.
Both the drivers and the nature of the racing was to be a hallmark of the 46 laps that remained after the accident scene had been cleaned up.
At the restart it was Earnhardt Jr. against Greg Biffle, who had gone a lap down in the laps before the rain delay before being gifted the Lucky Dog in the wake of Larson’s spin. Biffle took the lead, swinging between the front of the two chasing lines gaining the draft of each in turn while also able to check the momentum of his potential challengers. The key to taking the lead began with making it far enough alongside the leader as to prevent them from blocking.
“You can sort of anticipate a run coming,” the victor described the move. “You just sort of jump in front of it and they shove you away. But the car has to be something special. Typically if the car isn’t anything special, you get diced around and guys can make a fool of you and send you on back outside the top five kind of easily. But our car was able to battle and fend off guys left and right it seemed at times.”
Though the threat of further rain shortening the race had dissolved the urgency injected into the race as laps ticked away forced drivers into three wide packs, inevitably leading to further multi-car accidents. Austin Dillon had a role to play in triggering two of them, the first when he clipped the left-rear of Kyle Larson, spinning his fellow rookie in the middle of the pack to start an accident that also involved Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Bobby Labonte, Kahne and Annett.
A latter crash swept up what remained of the bumper rookie class. Dillon bumped Richard Childress Racing teammate Ryan Newman through turn three, Newman wadding up against the outside wall with Brian Scott and rookie of the year contenders Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman and Allgaier as well as –conversely – soon to be fully retired Terry Labonte.
It was that accident that put the end of the race beyond the posted 200 lap distance. While the field circled behind the pace car a stray piece of race tape was sucked onto the nose of the #88 car. The initial signs were those of concern, Jr. trying to remove the tape with the help of the rear bumper of the pace car. However, with only two laps of racing the tape was – the driver believes – an aid.
“If anything, it would help us,” said Jr. “Anytime you add tape to the grill, you speed the car up. If anything, it was going to help my car. They could have taped it solid for all I cared those last two laps. Would have been fine.”
Jr. took the restart in the lead of the low line with Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon behind. Able to jump clear of high line leader Brad Keselowski Earnhardt Jr. moved clear, but behind Hamlin was the man on the move. Having restarted from sixth he dropped down to usurp Gordon on the lead of the low line to become Jr.’s closest challenge as the field passed under the white flag – the moment Steve Letarte – crew chief on the #88 team – knew the errant tape would not become a factor.
The run that Hamlin had ridden to second, however, stalled alongside Keselowski in a battle for second, leaving him unable to challenge for the lead on the final lap as Earnhardt surfed from the lead of one to the other down the back straight.
As Earnhardt Jr. transitioned off the turn four baking towards the tri-oval an accident broke out in the rear half of the top ten, bringing out the caution flag and leaving cars – as is too often the case at Daytona crossing the finish line spinning and crashing – and in Kyle Busch’s case backwards in the pitlane as he claimed 19th place.
Behind Hamlin and Keselowski in second and third respectively, Gordon, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Biffle, Dillon and Casey Mears completed the top ten.