A day, night and early morning filled with firsts ended with Matt Kenseth winning his second Daytona 500. Otherwise, there was nothing ordinary about a chaotic, at times bizarre, and thoroughly unique 54th running of the “Great American Race,” the first Daytona 500 ever to be postponed from Sunday afternoon to Monday night, and ended Tuesday morning.
Kenseth, who along with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle had the fastest cars throughout the race, held off Biffle through the final seven laps. Biffle had a push from Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the two were never able to gather enough momentum to pass the Wisconsin native from the back straight through Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap. Earnhardt made it around Biffle for second, but was unable to catch Kenseth by the flag – at nearly 1 a.m. ET Tuesday morning.
“I need to thank Greg Biffle,” Kenseth admitted after his second win of the week, having also won his Gatorade Duel in a similar way on Thursday. “It ended up who would be in front at the end. I can't believe we're here twice in one week. It's a combination of things, but mainly what could give us the best finish. We went so fast together. The Roush Yates engines are great.”
Biffle, who finished third, seemed more perplexed he wasn't able to generate enough of a run with Earnhardt pushing to see that two-car tandem overtake Kenseth.
“I don't know what happened,” Biffle said. “I couldn't pull up on the 17. It's like he floored it. I think I was shoving him out. We needed a run, or a gap. I didn't have the gap. I had to drag the brake to get a run. I thought Junior would push me up and I could side draft past. It wasn't meant to be. I think Junior's shocked too.”
“I'd like to have won,” Earnhardt said. “I pushed Greg. I thought he was waiting and waiting. Nothing materialized. I waited until the last minute. I pulled out and went around him. Matt had a strong car. The Roush guys were strong.”
Kenseth's first Daytona 500 win in 2009 came in a rain-shortened race, and for a time, it looked like this year's running would be shortened as well, but for a far different reason. Under a caution with 40 laps remaining, Juan Pablo Montoya's car had something break in the rear, and the Colombian suffered a strange spin from the apron up the road through Turn 3 into a jet dryer. The collision sparked a raging inferno, as the truck was carrying 200 gallons of jet fuel at the time.
Montoya and the truck's driver, Duane Barnes, a Michigan International Speedway track worker, escaped unharmed from the accident, but nonetheless it was a very scary moment. Montoya explained what happened from his perspective.
“I left the pits and felt a really weird vibration, and I came back in and checked the rear end and said it was OK,” Montoya said. “I got into the back straight and we were going fourth gear but I wasn't going that fast. Every time I got on the gas I could feel the rear squeezing. When I was telling the spotter to have a look how the rear was moving, the car just turned right.”
The accident shifted the running order to where the unheralded quartet of Dave Blaney, 0-for-397 in his Sprint Cup career, 22-year-old Landon Cassill in the remnants of the Red Bull Racing squad at the new BK Racing team, Tony Raines in the car sponsored by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland were running first through fourth. Despite the fact there were two Davids in this group, the race wasn't called and would resume after a red flag lasting more than two hours. They all pitted and fell back when the race restarted.
Under the red flag, another bit of NASCAR history happened when Brad Keselowski sent the unofficial “tweet heard round the world” at 9:58 p.m. ET. Keselowski took a phone picture of the fracas in front of him from the cockpit of his car as he was stopped on the back straight (RIGHT). After the first ever in-race driver tweet, Keselowski's followers numbers spiked from more than 81,000 to over 200,000 by the end of the night.
Keselowski's tweet was his night's highlight, as when the race restarted he was caught up in the second-to-last accident of the evening on lap 188. Coming through the tri-oval, he was involved in an accident that also affected Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, Regan Smith, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Smith's strong Speedweeks came to an end as for a second straight year, the Cato, N.Y., native-turned Denver resident this off-season was a victim of a wreck not of his own doing in the late stages of the race.
The final wreck of the night came with four laps to go, also involving seven cars. Stewart, Edwards and Kyle Busch were three of the seven included, along with Blaney, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Reutimann.
Neither of those accidents were in the direct lead pack, and so the cars in front of them were free to race for the final few laps. Behind the top three, Denny Hamlin finished fourth in his first race working with Darian Grubb as crew chief and ahead of a Richard Childress trio of Jeff Burton, Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick. Polesitter Edwards finished eighth ahead of Joey Logano and Mark Martin in the top 10.
Beyond the leaders, it was a rough night for Hendrick Motorsports and Hendrick-associated cars. Jimmie Johnson had the night's hardest car-to-car impact, when he was pitched into a spin by Elliott Sadler on lap 2, of all laps. As his car hit the outside wall through the tri-oval, then careened back across the road, it was sitting in the middle of the track where it was crushed by David Ragan. The impact also took out the Hendrick-affiliated Phoenix Racing Chevrolet driven by Kurt Busch, defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne and Daytona 500 debutante Danica Patrick.
Johnson appeared shaken but not stirred by the impact, but fortunately, escaped uninjured.
“I'm OK, but the last hit was pretty hard,” said the five-time series champion. “I tried to make my lane work. I felt that I got some help from behind, but I got turned around, then I got drilled pretty hard. I'm pretty bummed out.”
Ragan, in his first start for Front Row Motorsports and the July winner at Daytona last year, was less diplomatic about Sadler's case of bump-drafting gone wrong.
“I saw the 48 spinning and I couldn't get low enough to avoid him,” he explained. “But I wanted to get back here ASAP to see what bonehead would do that, that early in the Daytona 500.”
Patrick, Bayne and Busch all returned to the track, but more than 50 laps down apiece. Bayne finished 35th ahead of Patrick – a favorite of both the FOX Sports broadcast during the race's middle stages and of commentator Darrell Waltrip – in 38th, and Busch 39th.
Jeff Gordon suffered an explosive engine failure, adding to the Hendrick woes. What looked large at the time, though, paled in comparison to the Montoya/jet dryer dust-up.
All in all, the madness that was the 2012 Daytona Speedweeks is at an end, and the series shifts cross-country to Phoenix International Raceway next Sunday. The teams have a tough task ahead of them as they leave Daytona in the wee hours of the night, drive back to Charlotte to swap their restrictor plate cars for short track-based cars for the Phoenix mile, and then depart for the West Coast.
Results - 202 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.210s
3. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 0.258s
4. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 0.613s
5. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 0.771s
6. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 0.999s
7. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 1.031s
8. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 1.141s
9. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 1.151s
10. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota + 1.166s
11. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 1.249s
12. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 1.261s
13. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 1.345s
14. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 1.380s
15. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 1.474s
16. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 1.516s
17. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 1.644s
18. Terry Labonte FAS Lane Ford + 1.894s
19. Tony Raines Front Row Ford + 2.050s
20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr Roush Fenway Ford + 5.054s
21. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 6.382s
22. Landon Cassill BK Toyota + 22.939s
23. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 1 lap
24. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 2 laps
25. Casey Mears Germain Ford + 3 laps
26. David Reutimann BK Toyota + 6 laps
27. Elliott Sadler Childress Chevrolet + 6 laps
28. Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota + 8 laps
Did not finish:
Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet 189 laps
Michael McDowell Parsons Ford 189 laps
Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 188 laps
Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge 187 laps
Aric Almirola Petty Ford 187 laps
AJ Allmendinger Penske Dodge 177 laps
Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford 164 laps
Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 159 laps
David Stremme Inception Toyota 156 laps
Danica Patrick Baldwin Chevrolet 138 laps
Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet 113 laps
Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet 81 laps
Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge 25 laps
Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet 1 lap
David Ragan Front Row Ford 1 lap