Takeaways from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 win
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Five things to know about the rain-delayed Daytona 500, NASCAR's signature event that finished under the lights Sunday at Daytona International Speedway:
HENDRICK DOMINATION: Richard Childress Racing garnered attention last week. Joe Gibbs Racing grabbed headlines this week. Hendrick Motorsports left Daytona International Speedway with the only prize that really mattered.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second Daytona 500 and first in more than a decade Sunday night, overcoming rain and wrecks to end a 55-race drought with a victory under the lights at the famed speedway where his father died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 race.
"It's obviously very significant (when) any Earnhardt wins at Daytona," second-place finisher Denny Hamlin said. "It's a significant day for their family and great for the race team."
Earnhardt celebrated by giving team owner Rick Hendrick a ride to Victory Lane and then climbed out of his car and hugged every crewmember. Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon stopped by to join in the festivities.
Gordon finished fourth, one spot ahead of six-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion Johnson. No one should have been surprised to see those guys up front. After all, Johnson won his second Daytona 500 last year, Gordon has three victories in "The Great American Race," and Junior had three second-place finishes in NASCAR's premier event the previous four years.
But they were mostly overlooked during Speedweeks, especially after rookie Austin Dillon gave RCR the pole in the return of the famed No. 3 car associated with Earnhardt's father and Gibbs drivers Hamlin and Matt Kenseth combined to sweep the first three Cup races.
SHR STRUGGLES: Tony Stewart's night ended with more Daytona heartache.
Stewart made it 0 for 16 in the Daytona 500 after another failed effort Sunday in the No. 14 Chevrolet. In 18 seasons spanning NASCAR and IndyCar, Stewart has been able to cross most everything off his to-do list. He still has one big milestone to chase in winning the Daytona 500.
Stewart was forced to pit road around the halfway point with an engine problem, then later went to the garage with fuel cell issues. He sat in the car while his crew worked on the 14 and eventually returned to the race a whopping 27 laps down.
The three-time Cup champion drove in his first Sprint Cup points race for the first time since he broke two bones in his leg in an August sprint-car crash
He does have 19th victories at Daytona in all races at the track other than the 500. He has more wins at one of NASCAR's most famous tracks than everyone except Dale Earnhardt (34).
Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in his 20th try. Stewart's wait will stretch out to at least 17.
Before Speedweeks, Stewart hadn't done much since breaking his right leg Aug. 5 in a sprint car accident. The broken tibia and fibula caused Stewart to miss the final 15 races of last season. He had two surgeries for the breaks, then a third to treat an infection. He was flat on his back, confined to the first-floor bedroom of his longtime business manager's house, where he was forced to lay with his leg elevated above his heart.
He started the Daytona 500 in the back because of an unapproved engine change. He was running about 25th when he started reporting engine issues.
"It acts like it's just out of fuel, and every lap it gets worse and worse and worse," Stewart said. "It's taking longer to recover, too."
Stewart thought the problem was resolved. Instead, he drove the 14 straight to the garage about 35 laps later.
He was collected in an early crash last season and finished 41st.
But he's lost some close calls, too. He was passed by Ryan Newman on the last lap in 2008, didn't get the push he needed on the final restart when Trevor Bayne won in 2011 and played second-fiddle to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004.
He wasn't the only driver at Stewart-Haas Racing with a short night on the track after a 6-plus hour rain delay. Danica Patrick, who led Daytona 500 laps for the second straight year, slammed nose first into the concrete in a 13-car accident late in the race. Patrick was hit by, of all cars, Aric Almirola's No. 43. Richard Petty made the number famous and he took a jab at Patrick before Daytona, saying she couldn't win a race unless all the other drivers stayed home. She wouldn't win this one - and neither would The King's driver.
"It was the best car that I had all Speedweeks," Patrick said. "It seemed like we could catch whoever and it seemed like we could move around, make lanes and just move around and move forward at the end of the day. I felt like everything was going pretty well, so it's just upsetting you know. It's just the culmination of sitting around all day."
Up next, Kurt Busch, whose spin down the stretch sent him to pit road and knocked him out of contention for a solid debut with SHR. He was 21st. Kevin Harvick was 13th after getting caught up in an accident with seven laps left.
DENNY'S DISAPPOINTMENT: Hamlin wasn't sure how to feel after he fell just shy of a Daytona sweep. Hamlin tried to become the first driver to win the exhibition Sprint Unlimited, his 150-mile qualifying race and the Daytona 500 in the same Speedweeks. He settled for second in the 500 behind Earnhardt.
Hamlin is off to a great start after he sat out five races last season with a fractured vertebra. His runner-up finish was his best in the 500, topping his fourth-place finish in 2012. He did it all after losing radio communication after the long rain delay.
"There's a lot to be disappointed about, but there's a lot to be happy about," Hamlin said. "I had to wing it those last 150 laps on my own. With not having a spotter there on that last green-white-checkered, I didn't know whether to back up more."
RCR WOES: Rookie Dillon slumped in his chair, staring across the room at a television screen that was showing highlights of the Daytona 500. He was in a bunch of them - and they were mostly negative.
Dillon started on the pole in the famed No. 3, taking the late Dale Earnhardt's number out of mothballs and back to the top of the scoring tower. He got significant attention leading into the season opener, but it faded along with his position on the track. Dillon dropped as low as 39th before working his way back through the field and finishing ninth. In between, he started two wrecks that knocked out several cars and was involved in another.
"I think the yellow stripes on the bumper showed a little bit tonight," said Dillon, who made contact with teammate Ryan Newman and fellow rookie Kyle Larson in separate incidents.
Dillon's teammates didn't fare much better, making it a long night for RCR. Newman was in two accidents and came home 22nd. Brian Scott was in three accidents and finished 25th. Paul Menard also wrecked and crossed the line 32nd.
REPLAY REACTION: Jimmie Johnson was hailed as the Daytona 500 champion all over the place Sunday - he was trending on Twitter and even had friends congratulating him via text message - despite the race being in a rain delay.
Showers halted the race after 38 laps and it resumed more than six hours later. Johnson eventually finished fifth, but someone probably believes he won.
Fox Sports showed a replay of last year's season opener, the one in which Johnson won his second 500. Fox ran an intermittent crawl across the bottom of the screen, saying the 2013 race was being shown while Sunday's race was being delayed because of rain. But thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people failed to get the message. Johnson's phone started blowing up with congratulatory texts while he was hanging out in his motorhome.
Fox News, for one, erroneously reported Johnson's victory. And several Fox affiliates relayed the bad information.
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