DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — There was rain, fire, soap suds and fog in the most bizarre Daytona 500 in history.
When it was all over, Matt Kenseth was the only sure thing.
It wasn’t even close.
Kenseth capped a crazy 36 hours for NASCAR by winning the first postponed Daytona 500 in 55 editions of the marquee event. He held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle over a two-lap overtime finish in a race that was scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon but ended in the early morning hours Tuesday.
“We had a really fast car and have fast cars in the past, and I figured out a way to mess it up,” Kenseth said. “I am glad it all worked out.”
It did for Kenseth, who picked up a second Daytona 500 title to go with his 2009 victory at the end of a wild SpeedWeeks. All three of NASCAR’s national series races went to overtime, with unknown winners picking up the victories in the Nationwide and Truck Series.
And after a wild Daytona 500 that took more than 36 hours to complete, the teams were stranded in Daytona another night: bad weather in North Carolina closed the airports at home.
“Now believe it or not I can’t go home,” fourth-place finisher Denny Hamlin posted on Twitter. “Fogged in. Yet another night in Daytona.”
He had it better than driver Landon Cassill — his rental car was towed from Daytona International Speedway property sometime during the race.
Yup, it was that kind of race.
Rain at Daytona International Speedway first forced NASCAR to push the race to Monday afternoon, then Monday night for the first-ever 500 in primetime television. Then a freak accident caused a massive fuel fire that stopped the race for two hours as safety workers used Tide laundry detergent to clean up the track.
In the end, the event will be remembered not for the actual racing, but all the fluke things that plagued it from start to finish.
“The thing that comes into my mind is NASCAR just can’t catch a break,” Earnhardt said. “We’re trying to deliver, and we just have some unfortunate things happen such as the rain delay, potholes in the track a couple of years ago. We’re a good sport, and we’re trying to give a good product.”
When racing resumed after a 2-hour stoppage for a freaky fuel fire, it was obvious it was Kenseth’s to lose.
Biffle was the only driver who could mount a challenge as the Fords were the class of the field. Carl Edwards, another Roush driver, started from the pole and finished eighth.
“The Roush cars are really strong; they showed that all week,” Earnhardt said.
Kenseth and Biffle took over the lead following the stoppage with 40 laps to go, caused by the fire that began when something broke on Juan Pablo Montoya’s car. He was driving alone under caution, spun hard into a safety truck, and the collision caused an instant explosion.
Jet fuel — the safety truck held 200 gallons of kerosene — poured down the surface of Turn 3 at Daytona International Speedway after the accident, creating a fiery lasting image of NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
Journeyman driver Dave Blaney was leading at that time because he had not pitted, and all the drivers surrounded him as they lingered outside their parked cars during the clean-up. It looked a little bit like a party — and Brad Keselowski nearly tripled his number of Twitter followers by live tweeting during the break — as everyone discussed just what had happened to derail the race.
It was par for the course for this Daytona 500
Montoya, who said his helmet was singed in the fire and his foot ached, said he felt a vibration in his car before the accident.
“I’ve hit a lot of things — but a jet dryer?” he said. “It just felt really strange, and as I was talking on the radio, the car just turned right.”
The drivers were allowed to exit their cars after about 10 minutes under the red flag.
NASCAR officials examined the track surface and determined the race could continue.
“About the time you think you’ve seen about everything, you see something like this,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
Blaney’s lead was short-lived, however, as he had to pit for gas, giving Kenseth the lead.
The racing was aggressive at the drop of the green flag, and the first accident occurred on just the second lap, when Elliott Sadler ran into the back of Jimmie Johnson as they drafted around the track.
The contact sent Johnson into the wall, and as the five-time NASCAR champion slid back down across the track, he was hit hard in the door by David Ragan. The accident collected six cars total, including defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Danica Patrick.
“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.”
He may go to Phoenix without any points: NASCAR is expected to penalize crew chief Chad Knaus this week for failing the first inspection of SpeedWeeks. Knaus could be facing both a suspension and a loss of a points.
It took about an hour for Patrick’s Stewart-Haas Racing crew to get her back on the track, and she returned 62 laps behind the leader.
The race settled down after that, and the push for the $200,000 leader bonus at the halfway mark didn’t spark too much excitement. Two-time NASCAR champion Terry Labonte had been running second and presumably in position to make a move for the cash, but he was spun by Marcos Ambrose.
“Awe, man! Who would turn the Ice Man around?” Earnhardt shouted on his team radio.
After a brief caution, the leaders had a 10-lap sprint to the halfway point, and Martin Truex Jr. used a big push from Denny Hamlin to slide by Greg Biffle on the deciding lap. Although he was told over his team radio to “go get the other half,” history didn’t bode well for Truex: the last leader at the halfway point to win the Daytona 500 was Davey Allison in 1992.