Tuesday, February 20, 2018

6-hour Daytona delay can't stop Junior

When the rain finally cleared for Sunday's Daytona 500, the NASCAR Sprint Cup series enjoyed a frantic season-opening finish.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. surged in the final two laps to win the Great American Race for the second time, edging Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski in a chaotic final moment that saw a multicar wreck as the field approached the checkered flag. Earnhardt won under caution at about 11:20 p.m.

The win likely clinches a spot in the season-ending Chase for the Championship for Earnhardt, whose other Daytona 500 win came in 2004.

Drivers seemed cautious in the opening 38 laps as they settled in for the 200 scheduled laps and tried to feel out their cars, the field and the weather radar before taking too many chances.

Rain finally settled over Daytona International Speedway in the early afternoon, marking the second major delay in the past three runnings of the 500. The green flag's return from a six-hour delay — and the threat of more rain brewing from the west — led to a frenzied push to the front, in case bad weather shortened the event.

"When cars are grippy, people are crazy," driver Michael Waltrip said. "They like to go."

The 115 miles before the restart featured five lead changes. The next 115 miles had 20 lead changes.

"It's been a lot more chaotic for sure," Tampa's Aric Almirola said.

The final 60 laps were wreck-filled. A 13-car chain reaction on Lap 146 pushed Brian Scott into Almirola's No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford on the frontstretch. Almirola slid into Danica Patrick, sending last year's pole-sitter hard into the wall.

"I felt like everything was going pretty well, so it's just upsetting, you know," said Patrick, who became the first female driver to lead at Daytona last year. "It's just the culmination of sitting around all day."

After nine laps of green, caution flew again after pole-sitter Austin Dillon's No. 3 Chevy made contact with the No. 42 of fellow rookie Kyle Larson, triggering an eight-car wreck. And with seven laps to go, a sixth caution knocked out Terry Labonte, Ryan Newman and others to set up a two-lap shootout, with Earnhardt trying to stave off a dwindling fuel tank, a grill blocked by a piece of debris and a charging Keselowski.

Earnhardt bolted on the inside. Keselowski, Hamlin and Gordon battled for second, letting Earnhardt pull ahead for good. Hamlin took second, followed by Keselowski, Gordon and defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

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