Primetime Thriller: Kenseth Wins Wild Daytona 500

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Matt Kenseth edges Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle in Great American Race

Matt Kenseth edges Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle in Great American Race

by Matt Taliaferro

The 1979 Daytona 500 is considered by many to be the most noteworthy in the event’s 54-year history. A snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast, providing a captivated audience; a last-lap battle for the win, ending in a wreck and a surprise winner; and of course, an infamous post-race fight in the infield between Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison.

The 2012 edition of The Great American Race did its best to top it. And just may have done so.

Rained out for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 took NASCAR’s premier turn on a weeknight, prime-time slot on network television, and it didn’t take long for the storylines to develop. A wreck on Lap 2 eliminated five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, along with Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne and David Ragan.

A somewhat subdued period followed, as drivers filed in line, ran in formation and waited to make their moves as the possibility of rain kept crew chiefs chewing their pencils. A Ryan Newman single-car spin, a blown engine in Jeff Gordon’s Chevy and another blown powerplant, this in David Stremme’s ride, punctuated a largely two-by-two affair.

And then, it all went up in flames.

While under caution for Stremme’s blown engine, Juan Pablo Montoya’s rear wheels locked up as he was catching up to the field due to a faulty transmission. His No. 42 Chevy crashed violently into a jet dryer that was blowing debris off of the track, igniting the safety vehicle into a ball of jet-fueled fire. Two hundred gallons of jet fuel burned on the track as safety personnel attempted to put out the blaze and then remove the vehicle while questions circulated that the race may not be resumed.

A two hour and five minute red-flag period ensued while NASCAR and track personnel repaired the surface, cleaning the spilt fuel and patching damaged areas of the surface. Meanwhile, drivers exited their parked cars on the backstretch, taking to Twitter — Brad Keselowski is believed to have gained 55,000 followers during the break — huddling around unlikely leader Dave Blaney’s car and doing television interviews.

Once racing resumed — at midnight in the eastern time zone — and with 40 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth inherited the lead. And it was a lead he would hold for the duration, which included two additional wrecks, the first with 13 laps to go that involved seven cars and the second, an eight-car affair that took the race into a green-white-checker finish.

In the two-lap overtime conclusion, Kenseth held off teammate Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the pair failed to piece together a run that could dethrone Kenseth’s powerful Ford.

“It was like the 17 (Kenseth) had more motor at the end,” an incredulous Biffle said. “It was like he floored it and we couldn’t catch him.

“I thought Junior would push up to his back bumper and I’d side-draft him (Kenseth) and go by him and then it’d be me and Junior over here at the (finish) line. But it wasn’t meant to be.”

Earnhardt squeezed by Biffle for second. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 5.

The win was Kenseth's his second of Speedweeks 2012 after taking checkers in his Gatorade Duel race on Thursday, and his second Daytona 500 triumph in the last four years. It was also earned under difficult circumstances, as his Ford experienced water system issues early in the race (nearly falling a lap down) and radio problems late.

“Our car, for some reason, was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic,” Kenseth said. “It took a long time to get to the front, but like Thursday (in the Duel) once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you.

“My car was one of the faster cars, so it was harder for some of the cars to push you and stay locked onto you. And I learned a little bit on Thursday about the last couple laps there, and kind of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked. And we had enough speed once we took the white (flag), I felt sort of OK about it, but I still thought they were going to get a run and pass me. By the time I got to (Turn) 3 and could see they couldn't get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”

So while the final lap may have lacked the fireworks seen in the ’79 edition, the rest of the event certainly had more twists, turns and downright surreal circumstances. Earnhardt, for one, was just happy to get out of a long Speedweeks with a clean car and a solid finish.

“You know, you bring such a nice car down here, and the chances of you tearing it up is pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like what we saw at the end of the race. But I was really happy to be able to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.”

And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, following a race that was supposed to be completed on Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt summed up a marathon weekend well: “It was a little bit of a bizarre week with the rain and all that, but you know, we stuck around and got it all done.”

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

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<p> Matt Kenseth wins the first weeknight Daytona 500 run in prime time.</p>

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