DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Through rain and wrecks, on Daytona’s longest day, this was a drought Dale Earnhardt Jr. was determined to end.
NASCAR’s most popular driver won the Daytona 500 on Sunday night for the second time – a decade after his first victory – while snapping a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012.
The victory ended a streak of futility at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished second in three of the previous four 500s.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt, who climbed from his car in Victory Lane and hugged every member of his Hendrick Motorsports crew. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good.”
As he crossed the finish line in his No. 88 Chevrolet, the few who withstood a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes screaming their support, Earnhardt euphorically radioed his crew, “This is better than the first one!” He was met by Rick Hendrick after his victory lap, and the team owner climbed into the driver’s window for a ride to Victory Lane.
Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began for a delay of more than six hours. When it resumed, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
But it got chaotic as it neared the conclusion, with 42 lead changes and four multicar accidents.
An accident with seven laps to go triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 – Earnhardt’s father’s number making its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 – set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.
Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had teammate Jeff Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.
Then an accident farther back in the field involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.
“We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart,” Earnhardt said. “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
Hamlin was second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Keselowski in a Team Penske Ford.
Hendrick took fourth and fifth with Gordon and last year’s race winner, Jimmie Johnson.
Tony Stewart made it 0 for 16 in the Daytona 500 after another failed effort 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 has 19 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 Sr. (34).
Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in his 20th try. Stewart’s wait will stretch out to at least 17.