Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to win his second Daytona 500.
On the day — and night — that signaled the return of his late father’s iconic No. 3 to the track, Dale Jr. outraced Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski on Sunday night and won the rain-delayed Daytona 500.
It was the second Daytona 500 victory for Earnhardt, who last won the race in 2004 and had finished second in three of the last four NASCAR Sprint Cup season openers.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling you could feel in this sport except for winning the championship trophy,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know I’d ever get a chance to feel that again. It feels just as good maybe better than the first because of how hard we’ve tried running second all these years.
“This is amazing. I can’t believe it’s happening. I can never take this for granted. This doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
After the race began with rookie Austin Dillon on the pole in the No. 3 Chevrolet last driven by Dale Earnhardt when he was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, a heavy rainstorm moved in and stopped the race on the 38th lap.
The race resumed after a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes and 40 seconds, putting The Great American Race in prime time. It was worth the wait for Earnhardt, who had not won a Sprint Cup race since August 2012 at Michigan, a streak of 55 winless starts.
As Earnhardt held off Denny Hamlin, Keselowski and Jeff Gordon on the final lap, two separate crashes behind them sent cars careening into each other and into the wall. Because it was the final lap, NASCAR did not stop the race, which finished under caution.
Earnhardt, in winning his 20th career Sprint Cup race, joined Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip and Sterling Marlin as the only two-time winners in the 56-year history of the Daytona 500.
His famous father won the Daytona 500 only once.
“Congrats to Junior,” said Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. “The world is right. Dale Earnhardt Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014. That’s a sign the NASCAR season is going to be a good one.”
The win virtually guarantees Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last 11 years, a spot in to the expanded 16-driver field in the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs at the end of the season.
“Am I in the Chase?” an incredulous Earnhardt asked. “We don’t have to worry about that now?”
Dillon finished ninth, and appreciated the symmetry of his starting in the No. 3, and Earnhardt winning the race.
“It’s very awesome,” said Dillon. “Junior has been so supportive of me, bringing back the 3. I’ve gone to him for a lot of advice. I can’t thank him enough. He’s been a big brother and has made this whole transition easier. I want to thank him and congratulate him.”
The coincidence of Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 on the night the No. 3 returned was wildly received by most of the 140,000 fans who returned to Daytona International Speedway after being evacuated during tornado warnings and the afternoon-long thunderstorms.
“Dale’s a very popular driver,” said Keselowski said. “Is he more popular than a number? I’d like to think a person is more popular than a number, but you never know. Both are important stories and rewarding for the sport.
“The great thing about Dale winning today I followed him and passed him but this particular race, there was some voodoo magic, reason why he won. He earned this in every sense. To me, that stands out the most. If there’s ever a guy who was due, it’s a guy who has finished second in three of the last four years. That’s really saying something.”
Despite the long day they spent in their motor homes waiting out the rain, the drivers’ performances were strong. The race featured 18 different leaders and 42 lead changes until Earnhardt grabbed the lead from Carl Edwards with 18 laps to go.
“Everybody kept talking over the radio, ‘There’s more rain coming, there’s more rain coming,’ ” Keselowski said. “That added to the anxiety and the rush of pace more so than the long break. I think everyone raced a really, really hard, 500-mile race. I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting.
“That has to be the hardest-raced 500 ever, as far as I’m concerned, and one of the best. You look at the rules package and the way the cars ran today you could run the top, you could run the bottom, you could run the middle. At one point in the race, handling started to come into play and skill level started to show up from a driver’s perspective.
“I couldn’t be more pleased as both a participant and as a fan of the sport with how the 500 went from a competitive standpoint and I’m happy for my friend Dale.”