The slanted black No. 3 might have started on the pole for NASCAR’s biggest race, but it was the son of the man who made that number famous who was the first across the finish line at the end.
“All is right in the world,” said teammate Jeff Gordon. “Dale Jr. won the Daytona 500.”
In 2004, Junior won his last one at Daytona. And 10 years later, after a rain delay resulted in a finish almost 10 hours after the race began, he did it again. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get to feel that again and it feels just as good,” Junior said. “This is amazing, I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted.”
Thanks to the new 2014 Chase format, he becomes the first of 16 drivers to earn a Chase berth with a win.
“What makes it special is the people you’re with,” Junior said.
It’s the first 500 victory for crew chief Steve Letarte as well and will also be his last. Letarte is leaving the No. 88 team for a broadcast role on NBC Sports Network next year.
“If you’re gonna win one, this is the one you want to win,” said Letarte.
Junior has finished as the runner-up in the Daytona 500 in 3 of the last 4 years. “He’s been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years here and he got it done,” said Junior’s Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson was one of several cars that battled for the lead in the last 50 laps, along with others including Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Jeff Gordon.
Denny Hamlin ended up as the second place car Sunday night, one place short of completing a sweep of the three Sprint Cup races in Speedweeks. But after the rain caused a radio problem that cut off his communication with his team, Hamlin wasn’t quite satisfied. “I’m so 50/50 on whether I’m pissed off or I’m happy, I just don’t know,” Hamlin said.
“I didn’t perform as good as I could have cause I was trying to spot myself at the end of the race,” he said. “It’s hard to win a superspeedway race when you don’t know when runs are coming, when you have to time your passes and everything, especially when you’re trying to guard against causing a wreck, knowing you have radio silence.”
As for the much talked-about rookies, only Austin Dillon in the No. 3 finished inside of the top 20. He pulled out a ninth place finish after starting on the pole and being involved in several wrecks, including one where he got loose and collided with fellow rookie Kyle Larson and ended up involving 10 cars. “I think the yellow stripes on the bumper showed a little bit tonight. But we made it through it,” Dillon said.
Larson struggled even before wrecking with Dillon, hitting the wall on lap two and losing a tire just a few laps later. He ran 2 laps down for the majority of the race before heading to the garage after the wreck. All five other rookies ended their nights early with crashes as well.
Bad luck was also on the side of Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. Kahne struggled early, spinning coming out of the pits and eventually getting caught up in the wreck that involved Dillon and Larson. Stewart, coming off of 4 months without racing thanks to an injury in a sprint car race, went to the garage early with engine problems.
Despite the usual wrecks, most drivers seemed to like the rules package this year. “I couldn’t be more pleased as both a participant and a fan of the sport with how the 500 went from a competitive standpoint. The actual racing I thought was great,” said Brad Keselowski, who finished third. “That has to be the hardest raced 500’s as far as I’m concerned, and one of the best.”
This article originally appeared on the Florida Sports Talk website, the media outlet for which Tori was covering the Daytona 500.