DAYTONA BEACH — On the night his father's number made its return to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. put a decade of struggles behind him to earn perhaps the biggest win of his career.
Earnhardt survived rain, wrecks, a near-empty fuel tank and a late night, star-studded push to the finish at Daytona International Speedway to win his second Daytona 500 on Sunday night.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport," said Earnhardt, who led six times for 54 laps. "…I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to feel that again."
The victory in NASCAR's season opener ended his 55-race winless streak that was the latest stumble in an up-and-down career for the sport's most popular driver. Earnhardt won the "Great American Race" in 2004 but missed the Chase to the Championship in four of the next nine seasons.
With Sunday's win, he's likely already clinched a spot in this year's revamped postseason.
"The world is right, right now," said Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate who finished fourth. "Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014. That's a sign the NASCAR season's going to be a good one."
And if Sunday was any indication, it'll be a wild one, too.
Drivers started cautious in the opening 38 laps as they settled in, trying to feel out their cars, the competition and the weather before taking too many chances. Showers caused a six-hour rain delay, and the threat of more storms brewing in the west led to a frenzied, three-wide push to the front when the race resumed after 8:30 p.m.
"That has to be the hardest raced 500 ever, as far as I'm concerned, and probably one of the best," said 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski, who finished third.
The 115 miles before the post-rain restart had only five lead changes. The next 115 miles featured 20 of the race's 42 lead changes, with Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Danica Patrick and Kyle Busch among the race's 18 different leaders.
"It's been a lot more chaotic for sure," said Tampa native Aric Almirola, who led five laps, his first time in the front of the field at Daytona. "The track has a lot more grip, so people are taking a lot more risks."
Those risks led to a hectic final 55 laps.
A chain reaction on Lap 146 pushed Brian Scott into Almirola's No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford on the frontstretch. Almirola slid into Patrick, sending last year's pole-sitter hard into the wall in a 13-car wreck. Patrick was not hurt and finished 40th.
After nine laps of green, caution flew again when pole-sitter Austin Dillon made contact with the No. 42 of fellow rookie Kyle Larson, triggering an eight-car crash. Dillon recovered to finish ninth in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, which hadn't been driven in the Cup series since the crash that killed Earnhardt's father here 13 years ago.
Then Trevor Bayne, the 2011 race winner, got loose and knocked himself out of contention with 17 laps left. And with seven laps to go, a sixth caution knocked out Terry Labonte, Ryan Newman and five others to set up a two-lap shootout, with Earnhardt trying to hold on despite a dwindling fuel tank, a piece of debris clinging to the front of his No. 88 Chevy and a charging field.
Earnhardt took the inside line and sped ahead. Keselowski, Hamlin and Gordon fought for second, and Gordon gave his teammate a drafting push to help him avenge three runnerup finishes in the previous four years in the 500. Earnhardt hadn't won since June 2012 at Michigan.
"He drove his butt off tonight," said car owner Rick Hendrick, who had three drivers place in the top five — Earnhardt, Gordon and fifth-place Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt crossed the finish line ahead of runnerup Hamlin to end Hamlin's hopes of sweeping Speedweeks. In a race that started at 1:30 p.m. and ended at around 11:20, Earnhardt also avoided a last-lap wreck that claimed Busch and Carl Edwards to put an Earnhardt in the winner's circle on a night the No. 3 car returned to the track.
"I won't take it for granted," Earnhardt said after his 20th Cup win, "and I won't forget it."
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.