It was a night of firsts. The first time rain postponed the 500. The first time the race started under the lights on primetime TV. The first time it would run on Monday. And Tuesday. The first time a driver would post on Twitter from his car during the race. The first time a jet dryer would explode on the track. There was fire, and there was plenty of rain. But when the checkered flag flew just under 36 hours after its scheduled start time, it was Matt Kenseth who would take home his second Harley J. Earl trophy at the 54th Annual Daytona 500.
Kenseth had been running strong all throughout Speedweeks leading up to the race, winning 1st in the second Gatorade Duel to grab the outside starting spot on the second row. But the start of the 500 did not look too hopeful for him. He was struggling early on losing water without overheating, but his #17 Best Buy team was able to overcome the issue and beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle to clench Roush Fenway Racing’s 300th win. “We had great horsepower, pretty unbelievable speed, and it just came down to whoever was at the front at the end,” said Kenseth.
Kenseth’s win will go down in history as the ending to possibly the strangest Daytona 500 ever. And no, the strangest part was not the 30 hour wait that forced fans to choose between missing flights and work or leaving Daytona without seeing a single lap of the 500. Rather, it was the towering flames of exploding jet fuel in turn 3.
It all happened after David Stremme blew his engine on Lap 156. The caution flag was flying and jet dryers were out for what was supposed to be a quick fix back to green. But as Juan Pablo Montoya, who was running away from the pack, started down the back stretch, his back tires locked up. Montoya lost control of the car, sending him careening into turn 3 – headed straight for the busily working jet dryer.
The next sight was a huge flash of flames. Thankfully, JPM and the jet dryer driver scrambled from their vehicles before anyone could get hurt. “He was okay,” Montoya said of the jet dryer driver. “He just looked pretty scared.” Montoya said he came out okay as well and only suffered a sore foot in the crash.
The #42 car and the jet dryer were not so lucky. Flames jumped higher and black smoke billowed from turn 3 as the red flag waved. Fast action from crew at Daytona International Speedway swiftly put out the leaping flames, but not before 200 gallons of jet fuel had burned onto the track.
Officials wondered if the track would even be safe to race on after the clean up. Paired with an approaching rain shower, it was possible the race could be declared over and the field would be locked as it was when the red flag dropped. That move would have given the race leader at that time, Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Dave Blaney, his first Sprint Cup win in 398 starts. But unfortunately for Blaney, that was the one bizarre thing that did not happen this weekend, and the cars went back to racing after 2 hours and 5 minutes of red flag.
The explosion was certainly not the only commotion Monday’s 500 brought. The race was filled with drama before it even started. The anticipation had been high after an exciting Speedweeks, but grey skies and rain prevented the regularly scheduled Sunday run, and NASCAR rescheduled for Monday at noon.
On Monday morning, things were still looking dismal, and NASCAR made the call to move the race again, this time to 7:00 PM. The primetime start was successful, and a surprising number of fans stayed to see the Great American Race play out despite its delays.
But of course, it didn’t take long for the drama to start again. Before the drivers could even get into turn 1 on the first lap, several favorites crashed out of contention. Jimmie Johnson retired to the garage, and defending 500 champion Trevor Bayne took crippling damage. The wreck also forced famous lady of NASCAR Danica Patrick to go out 3-for-3 on the weekend, the damage to her car putting her 62 laps down. Jeff Gordon blew his engine and retired 80 laps into the race.
Regardless of all the setbacks, the fans and drivers stayed in good spirits. During the 2 hour clean-up, Brad Keselowski entertained himself by taking to Twitter as he waited in his car, posting a picture of the fire from his point of view and earning himself over 100,000 new followers. When it was clear the red flag was not going anywhere for a while, drivers emerged from their cars to chat with each other as fans started the wave across the way. Even as the race dwindled into Tuesday, attendance held steady as fans that had stuck it out so long refused to be defeated near the end.
By the time the checkered flag finally flew, it was 12:55 AM on Tuesday morning. The race had lasted almost 6 hours, with 1 red flag and 10 cautions. Only 22 cars finished on the lead lap. Fans and drivers alike were weary, tired, and worn out. It was the small price to pay in order to be a part of the wildly historical Monday night Daytona 500.