Marathon Man: After Hours Of Delay, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Scores Victory In Primetime Daytona 500

The Daytona International Speedway management team had to deal with some unique issues Sunday. Massive rain storms, and even tornado warnings, meant what was supposed to be an early afternoon race became an event with a six hour plus delay and a primetime start. It surely meant headaches the likes of which track management never saw coming.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates Sunday's Daytona 500 victory (Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates Sunday’s Daytona 500 victory (Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Though it’s hard to imagine anyone could prepare track management for the final stormy act of the day, the chaos that is a Junior Nation party.

Junior Nation got their chance to celebrate in Daytona and across the country on Saturday as their man, Dale Earnhardt Jr. held off Denny Hamlin on the final lap to win his Daytona 500.

It snapped a 55-race losing streak for Earnhardt, who last won in 2012 and won his first Daytona 500 in 2004.

“Man, it feels incredible,” Earnhardt said. “You know, I was looking at winning this race in 2004. It’s the greatest feeling you can have as a driver in NASCAR at a single event in a single day. Just trying to explain what that feeling is to people, I’ve been trying to tell people for 10 years what that felt like. It’s just hard to put it into words what winning this race really means you.

“… What makes this special is the people you’re with when it happens. I have a great relationship with my crew chief, Steve [Letarte]. He’s put an amazing team around me that we all really enjoy working together. And [team owner Rick Hendrick is] here to make all that possible. It just seems like it’s too good to be true really.”

A victory for the sport’s most popular driver in its most popular event works well for NASCAR.

“The world is right right now, Dale Junior just won the Daytona 500,” Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said. “That’s a sign it’s going to be a great season.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolls around the Daytona International Speedway with the checkered flag after winning the Daytona 500 Sunday (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolls around the Daytona International Speedway with the checkered flag after winning the Daytona 500 Sunday (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The race stopped for what some expected to be a short passing shower at lap 38, but it turned into much more as the Daytona area got walloped with storms through the afternoon and into the evening. The race restarted

After the six hour plus delay, Earnhardt showed he was one of the drivers to beat by running near the front for most of the final three quarters of the event. He ended up leading a race-high 54 laps.

“We just had such a great racecar, I’ll tell you,” Earnhardt said. “You guys know this place. You got to have a lot of car. The guy that wins this race has to make some smart moves and do some things either by luck or on a whim or experience or what have you, but the car really does the majority of the work. Just the car has to be excellent and above par.

“My car tonight, I knew it was something special. I didn’t know it was as good as it was tonight. But in practice, a couple times throughout the weekend, I noticed it was something unique. When we got the opportunities to sort of work our way into the lead, hold it, I was able to fight guys off, like you were saying, hold the lead, hold the lead, keep moving line to line.”

A wreck with seven laps remaining set up a two-lap shootout to the checkered that saw Earnhardt get a jump on Brad Keselowski at the green thanks to a push from Gordon.

“Jeff pushing us on the last restart was key to us winning the race, a key moment for us to pull away, not get stuck side-by-side with the outside lane,” Earnhardt said. “We timed that perfectly. He did a great job. That was definitely a very big moment for the victory there.”

Hamlin ended up second and Keselowski third. Hendrick Motorsports cars represented three of the top-five finishing positions with Gordon finishing fourth and Jimmie Johnson fifth.

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