DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It took nearly 10 hours to complete the Daytona 500 on Sunday and for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to complete his 10-year bid to return to Daytona’s Victory Lane.
Earnhardt held off Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski on a restart with two laps left to win NASCAR’s most prestigious race, and the Sprint Cup Series’ season opener, for the second time.
“I cannot believe this,” Earnhardt screamed over his car radio after crossing the finish line at 11:25 p.m. EST after a 61/2-hour rain delay at Daytona International Speedway.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in the sport,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.”
Earnhardt, the hugely popular son of the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, won his first Daytona 500 a decade ago. But this victory carried more weight by giving the Hendrick Motorsports driver an early boost in his effort to earn his first Cup title.
Under new NASCAR rules that place a greater emphasis on winning races than collecting points, his win virtually assured that Earnhardt would earn a berth in the 16-driver Chase for the Cup championship playoff in the fall.
“We pretty much might be in the Chase,” said Earnhardt, 39, who has 20 Cup victories. “Trust me, we’re going to have a blast this year.”
Hamlin finished second, Keselowski was third and two of Earnhardt’s teammates, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, finished fourth and fifth, respectively. Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, also was the defending race winner.
It was Earnhardt’s first Cup win since mid-2012, when he won at Michigan, a 55-race streak without a victory. He had finished second in three of the previous four Daytona 500s.
Earnhardt “was due and today was his day,” Keselowski said. “I am happy for him.”
After the green flag fell at 1:30 p.m., the race was only 38 laps old when the rain arrived.
After the lengthy delay, the race resumed with the entire field often racing in a two-by-two pack at nearly 200 mph and with the first 24 drivers separated by only one second.
But Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet was strong throughout the race which, combined with Earnhardt’s skill at blocking drivers behind him, enabled him to lead a race-high 54 of the 200 laps.
As Earnhardt and the other leaders took the checkered flag, a multi-car crash occurred behind them that collected Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray.
The final restart also was set up by a crash with seven laps left that included Ryan Newman and Terry Labonte, and there were two other major accidents earlier in the race.
With 54 laps left, a dozen cars were damaged as the field came out of Turn 4 of the high-banked, 2.5-mile speedway.
The drivers involved included pole-sitter Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Michael Waltrip, Aric Almirola and David Gilliland, among others.
There was another pileup 16 laps later when Dillon, who had returned to the race, touched the Chevrolet of Kyle Larson, a wreck that also collected Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.
Dillon, 23, finished ninth driving a Chevy for his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing, that carried the No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt’s father, a seven-time Cup champion.
The elder Earnhardt won his only Daytona 500 in 1998 and was killed three years later in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s win Sunday also put to rest concerns about his season that were raised when his crew chief, Steve Letarte, announced plans to be a NASCAR television analyst after this year.
Letarte “put an amazing team around me,” Earnhardt said. “I got one last year with this guy and we’re going to make it something special.”