DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 28, 2012) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet to a second-place finish behind Matt Kenseth in the 54th running of the Daytona 500 — a Monday night race that finished Tuesday morning at Daytona International Speedway.
Ryan Newman finished 21st in the U.S. Army/Quicken Loans Chevrolet after getting collected in an eight-car collision on the front stretch while running among the top 10 on lap 198 of a scheduled 200.
The race, therefore, was extended two laps and ended with a green-white-checker finish to a marathon delayed a day and a half by rain and red-flagged two hours and five minutes to clean the track after Juan Pablo Montoya’s car crashed into a jet-dryer truck in Turn 3, igniting the largest on-track fire in NASCAR history.
Fire and rain never had it so good at “The World Center of Racing” during “The Great American Race.” The drama made great theater for a national television audience that saw the first rain-delayed Daytona 500 in prime time on FOX.
The race lasted 3 hours, 36 minutes and 2 seconds. The margin of victory was 0.210 seconds.
“The car was good,” Earnhardt said. “We just didn’t have enough to get to the lead. We had a good car that was running in the top five, but the Roush cars were super strong. You’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit.”
Earnhardt was referring to the Jack Roush-owned cars of Kenseth, who won his second Daytona 500 in three years, and Greg Biffle, who finished third.
“I could get in between them, but I couldn’t get in front of them,” Earnhardt said. “I was hoping I could push Greg past Matt down the back straightaway and then pass Greg as I did on the front straightaway for the win, but Greg couldn’t get a run on him.”
Earnhardt said he did not believe Biffle was blocking for his teammate on the final lap.
“I don’t think that he was worried about me,” Earnhardt said. “Um, this is the Daytona 500, and I don’t know what it pays, but it’s a lot of money. And his team, I know that they’re teammates, but his group of guys that specifically work on that car or travel down here to pit the car during the race, his crew chief, Greg himself, they work way too hard to decide to run second in a scenario like that.”
“I’m pretty sure that if I know Greg, and you can ask him here in a bit, if he had an opportunity to get around Matt and had a chance to win the Daytona 500, he would have took it immediately. He’s trying to do what he could do. If I were him, I can’t imagine what his game plan was in his head, but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the 88 for the dogs.”
“But that didn’t work out. I saw Greg try to get a move going on the back straightaway, and it looked like Matt defended that really well. And I waited for Greg to have another opportunity on the exit of Turn 4, and it did not seem to be materializing. My spotter was keeping me aware of how much distance was between Greg and Matt, so when I knew that Greg did not have a chance to pass Matt, I would try to pass Greg if I could.”
That’s exactly what Earnhardt did to garner his third runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and his 14th top-10 finish in 19 races at Daytona International Speedway.
Biffle said he, too, was baffled by the turn of events.
“I still am a little blown away by the end of that — the end of the race that we weren’t able to push up to the back of [Kenseth’s] car. I was kind of surprised by that.”
Kenseth also won his Gatorade Duel at Daytona last week. The last driver to win both a Duel and the Daytona 500 was Earnhardt in 2004. This time, Earnhardt was content to keep his car in one piece and running for the lead at the end.
“I’m happy for our team, too,” Earnhardt said. “We had a really good-looking race car, good craftsmanship, and I was real proud of that. You know, you bring such a nice car down here and the chances of you tearing it up are pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like we saw at the end of the race. But I was really happy to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.
“It was a little bit of a bizarre week with the rain and all that. But you know, we stuck around and got it all done.”
Newman did not stick around long enough to discuss his frustrating finish. After spinning in Turn 2 to bring out the second caution of the race on Lap 14, he pitted and fell two laps down in the early going.
Newman, however, managed to get back on the lead lap before Montoya’s car “broke” on the backstretch and plowed into a truck pulling a jet-dryer, which spilled jet fuel onto the track and sparked a fire unlike any witnessed in NASCAR history.
“Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer,” Montoya said. “I wasn’t even going that fast and it was moving and traveling a lot. It just felt really strange. As I was talking on the radio, the car just turned right.”
It took more than two hours to clean the track and the clock struck midnight before racing resumed with 40 laps remaining. Newman charged into the top 10, putting him back in contention for a shot at a drive into Gatorade Victory Lane.
Three cautions later, however, Newman’s U.S. Army Chevy got collected in a melee just past the start-finish line.