DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- This year's Daytona 500 will be forever remembered for fire and rain.
After rain postponed the Daytona 500 to the next day for the first time in its 54-year history, moving it from its regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon starting time to Monday night in prime time, the race had one of its most frightening and dangerous situations when Juan Pablo Montoya lost control of his car under caution and slammed into the back of a jet dryer, causing it to explode in flames.
Montoya's Chevrolet was destroyed, forcing him out of the race, while the driver of the jet dryer escaped a serious situation. He was transported to a hospital across the street from Daytona International Speedway for further evaluation.
And that was just the prelude to the real drama and fireworks as Matt Kenseth scored his second Daytona 500 victory in the last four years, taking the checkered flag at 1 a.m. ET to end the longest Speedweeks in Daytona history.
"I have to give a lot of credit to Doug Yates and the guys at the engine shop -- we had great horsepower," said the driver, whose car was in front of the field two times for a total of 50 laps, including the final 38. "I have to thank Greg [Biffle too]. We worked together really good all day long. He had a really fast car all day as well.
"It feels good. We had a really fast car and have had fast cars in the past and I figured out a way to mess it up. I am thankful everything worked out on the restarts and I am glad it all worked out."
Kenseth is the ninth driver to win multiple Daytona 500s. His first Daytona 500 win came in the rain-shortened 2009 event. He also won the second Gatorade Duel at Daytona last Thursday. The last driver to win both a Duel and the Daytona 500 was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004.
Kenseth's victory was worth $1,589,397. The victory was also team owner Jack Roush's second Daytona 500. His first came with Kenseth in 2009.
"This is a special night," Roush said. "Matt is a real champion and he is really good at these restrictor tracks. ... We certainly had several ways to win it tonight and there are always ample ways to lose as well. Matt did a great job tonight."
Kenseth's Ford defeated Earnhardt's Chevrolet by 0.210 seconds in a race that featured 25 lead changes among 13 drivers. It was also slowed for 10 caution periods spanning 42 laps, including the two-hour, five-minute and 29-second red flag period after the fire.
Earnhardt finished second for his sixth second-place finish since his last Cup win at Michigan in 2008.
"The Roush cars are really strong and they showed that all week," Earnhardt said. "I could get in between them but not in front of them. I'm happy for Matt -- he's going to need the [money for an] extra college fund. I'm happy for our team, too. We had a good car and I'm proud of that. It was a bizarre week with the rain and we stuck around and got it done.
"I've run second here a lot. I know later tonight it's going to eat at me what I could have done to win the race. I'm fine. We did everything we could at the end."
Kenseth's teammate, Biffle, finished third to give Roush Fenway two drivers in the top three.
"I needed to have a gap to push the No. 88 [Dale Jr.] and I thought I would go by him at the line, but it wasn't meant to be," Biffle said. "I'm so happy to start off the season like this."
Denny Hamlin led the most laps in the race -- three times for a total of 57 laps -- before finishing fourth in a Toyota, and Jeff Burton rounded out the top five in a Chevrolet. Martin Truex, Jr. was the leader at the halfway point to win the $200,000 bonus before Kenseth took command of the race.
Kenseth was able to overcome little technical issues that developed in his race-winning car throughout the contest.
"We had a lot of problems and almost ended up a lap down," he said. "I had my radio break and my [tachometer] 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 thank this whole Best Buy team."
Danica Patrick was involved in a crash not of her making on the second lap of the race and finished 38th in her Sprint Cup debut.
"Any lap that I turn is progression," Patrick said. "It was important to get me out there to turn laps. At the end there it was perplexing because I had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. I just wish the beginning of the race could have been single file like it was when I got out there. Unfortunately, I have another crashed GoDaddy car."
Patrick's next Cup race is Darlington in May. She will run the entire NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule.
The race finished with one attempt at overtime, but Kenseth was the class of the field and at the end, he was unbeatable.
His victory ended a dramatic day punctuated with the huge fireball in the third turn of Lap 160.
The intense heat from the burning jet fuel caused severe damage to the asphalt surface and the SAFER Barrier in Turn 3, causing the race to be red-flagged with 40 laps to go. There was also a major issue with the amount of jet fuel that soaked the third turn because it would ignite additional sparks if it were not properly removed from the track's surface.
"Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer," said Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner and former Formula 1 driver. "I felt a vibration and came in. They looked at everything and everything was OK, and I still told them, 'I think there is something broke,' and I was coming back into the pits and the car just spun by itself.
"He [the jet dryer driver] came with me [in the ambulance]. He was pretty scared, but he looked OK."
The spectacular fire also created an ironic story at the front of the field for Dave Blaney. He finished 32nd in points last season but had his points transferred so that Patrick didn't have to go through qualifying to make the race. Blaney was in the lead when the race was red flagged, sitting ahead of the unlikely combination of Landon Cassill, Tony Raines and David Gilliland. Kenseth was fifth at the time. The four leaders were forced to pit for fuel, ending the drama of whether one of them would win the race.
It was a rough day for two Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson wrecked on the second lap of the race when Elliott Sadler bumped the No. 48 into the wall. Then, David Ragan got together with several other cars and T-boned Johnson's crippled car. It was the same accident that temporarily knocked Patrick out of the race.
"That side hit was hard," Johnson said. "When I was sitting in the middle of the racetrack, I knew at some point someone was going to come along unfortunately. David Ragan had nowhere to go. I unfortunately got drilled by him pretty hard.
"I'm just really, really bummed to start the season this way. For all the hard work that has gone into getting this Lowe's Chevrolet ready for tonight; we didn't get to complete two-and-a-half miles of green-flag racing. So, I'm pretty bummed." Johnson finished 42nd out of 43 cars in the race.
More trouble hit Hendrick Motorsports when three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon's engine blew up on Lap 81, putting him out of the race in 39 laps.
"Gosh, I am just so disappointed," Gordon said. "It's not the way we wanted to start this season or the Daytona 500, and it is a shame to be out like this."
Three years ago, when Kenseth won his first 500, it was a rain-shortened affair. He led just seven of the 152 laps that were completed. He never saw the checkered flag that night as the race was called shortly after the red flag was displayed. On Tuesday morning, he finally got to experience the thrill of driving to the checkered flag, and he didn't mind that it took extra laps to get there.
"We even went overtime a little bit since we didn't quite go the whole distance the first time we won it," Kenseth said. "It feels great. We had a really fast car all day, had a lot of adversity to overcome, a lot of problems with the car. ... I wasn't expecting to win when I woke up this morning, so it feels good to be sitting here."