Matt Kenseth wins wildest Daytona 500 ever

Matt Kenseth wins the much-delayed race in a frantic finish early today.
Published February 27 2012
Updated February 28 2012

DAYTONA BEACH — The wildest Daytona 500 ever began with water and featured smoke rising into the night sky.

For champion Matt Kenseth and the rest of the field.

Kenseth overcame 36 hours of rain and fire delays, plus radiator and communication problems to edge Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Greg Biffle and claim his second Daytona 500 victory early Tuesday morning in a green-white-checkered finish.

"I wasn't expecting to win when I woke up this morning," Kenseth said.

But he and his Roush Fenway Racing team stood in victory lane early Tuesday morning, with a tired Kenseth hoisting his second Daytona trophy almost 36 hours after the race was scheduled to begin.

Rain postponed Sunday's 1 p.m. start until noon Monday for the first time in the race's 54-year history. More showers delayed the green flag again, until 7 p.m. A fiery explosion from Juan Pablo Montoya's crash into a safety truck and track-drying its jet engine added a two-hour delay but injured no one.

"It's been a long night," Earnhardt said of the Great American Race's first primetime run.

A six-car wreck on the second lap made the night longer for Danica Patrick, who finished 38th in her Sprint Cup debut. Jimmie Johnson got a nudge from Elliott Sadler and ended the five-time series champion's run. The ensuing crash collected Patrick and defending race champion Trevor Bayne.

"Unfortunately we've got another crashed GoDaddy car," Patrick said after her third accident of the week.

Things didn't start well for Kenseth's No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, either.

He fell into 32nd position by lap 70 when a radiator problem sent water shooting from his hood like a fountain. His car's communication was down, too. He could listen to his crew, but they couldn't hear him.

"We had a lot of problems," Kenseth said.

So did the track after a wicked explosion.

With 100 miles to go, Montoya's No. 42 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy lost control on the backstretch during caution. He had complained of vibrations in his car, but his team found nothing wrong during a pit stop.

Moments later as he dropped into fourth gear to catch up to the pack, Montoya felt the rear of his car slip. It slid 180 degrees and slammed into one of the three safety trucks equipped with track-drying jet engines near the entrance of Turn 3.

"I have a hit a lot of things," Montoya said, "but a jet dryer? I mean, no."

Orange flames shot to the sky, but Montoya and the truck driver emerged from the accident safely. Both were checked out at area hospitals but sustained no serious injuries.

Their vehicles and track were not so lucky. The blast destroyed the front of Montoya's car and burned his helmet. It damaged the truck's trailer beyond recognition. Track president Joie Chitwood III estimated that 200 gallons of jet fuel spilled onto the track.

"It got your attention really quick," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

Almost three dozen safety vehicles gathered near the turn to hose down the blaze as black smoke billowed past the speedway's lights and into the dark sky. Red flashing lights lined the corner long after the flames died out and a forklift carted off the vehicles' remains. Workers spread absorbent material and laundry detergent on the asphalt and spent most of the two-hour, five-minute delay to get the track ready for the last 40 laps.

When the red flag came out, Dave Blaney was in the lead because he hadn't yet pitted a final time.

Blaney wasn't even the top driver on his team - that was Patrick, who took Tommy Baldwin Racing's automatic spot in the field. Blaney needed a 12th-place finish in the Gatorade Duel II just to qualify, but his car led the field with 40 laps left.

"After you do this stuff, long enough, you always think, 'What's next?"' said Blaney's crew chief, Ryan Pemberton. "You see some of the darnedest things."

Blaney lost the lead when he fueled up around midnight, and Kenseth's quickest final pit stop gave him the lead. The 39-year-old survived three late wrecks that included 19 cars, including a caution on lap 198 that forced Daytona's sixth green-white-checkered finish in the last eight races.

He held off a late charge as Earnhardt pushed Biffle - Kenseth's teammate - before taking the 22nd checkered flag of his career.

"It's like the 17 had more motor at the end," said Biffle, who edged Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton. "We couldn't catch him."

In one of the wildest races in NASCAR history, no one could catch Kenseth, who led 50 laps, including the last 38. Only Hamlin (57 laps) led more.

In 2009, Kenseth took the checkered flag here at a rain-shortened Daytona 500. Three years later, he was celebrating at another soggy weekend, smoking his tires outside Turn 4, as early-morning fog began to roll over the lights of the sleepy speedway.