DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Through rain and wrecks, on Daytona’s longest day, this was a drought Dale Earnhardt Jr. was determined to end.
Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 last night for the second time — a decade after his first victory — while ending a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012 at Michigan.
The victory also ended a run of close calls at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished second in three of the previous four 500s.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt, who climbed from his car in Victory Lane and hugged every member of his Hendrick Motorsports crew. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to feel it again, and it feels just as good.”
As he crossed the finish line in his No. 88 Chevrolet, the few who withstood a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes screamed their support, Earnhardt euphorically radioed his crew, “This is better than the first one!” He was met by Rick Hendrick after his victory lap, and the team owner climbed into the driver’s window for a ride to Victory Lane.
Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began. After several storms, including two tornado warnings, the race restarted at 8:53 p.m. With 162 of 200 laps left, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father died in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race. He led six times for a race-high 54 laps — all after the rain delay.
But it got chaotic as it neared the conclusion, with 42 lead changes and four multicar accidents.
An accident with seven laps left triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 — the number Earnhardt’s father drove, which was making its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 — set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.
Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and he had teammate Jeff Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap left.
Then an accident farther back in the field involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the victory belonged to Earnhardt.
“We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart,” Earnhardt said. “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man, because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
Hamlin was second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Keselowski in a Team Penske Ford.
“It was intense,” Hamlin said. “I thought we would wreck more cars. It was a great race for the fans.”
Hendrick, meanwhile, took fourth and fifth with Gordon and last year’s race winner, Jimmie Johnson.
“Three Hendrick (Motorsports) cars in the top five is so spectacular,” Gordon said. “Congrats to Junior. The world is right. Dale Jr. won the Daytona 500. That’s a great sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one.”
The long rain delay was the second in three years in the race. The stands at Daytona International Speedway emptied after the National Weather Service issued two separate tornado warnings in the area.
Drivers passed the time by watching TV or movies or, in the case of Hamlin, playing basketball.
The lengthy delay was a race record.
In 2012, rain postponed the race from Sunday afternoon to evening and eventually to Monday in prime time, when Matt Kenseth won. Before that, rain had shortened the race four times and forced it to start under yellow twice.