For the second time, and the first since 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the Daytona 500. The 56th annual race, at Daytona International Speedway was marred by an over six-hour rain delay after just 38 laps of racing, but once action resumed under the lights, it made for one of the most competitive 500s in recent memory. Junior led a race-high 54 laps after starting in the 9th position, running his 15th 500, and recorded his 20th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win. Junior didn’t take the lead for the first time until lap 131, so he led 54 of the last 70 laps.
The final 162 laps, under the lights, were much more exciting for the fans than the first 38. The race, as a whole, featured 42 lead changes among 19 drivers, and the stat of lead changes is only measured at the start-finish line. According to NASCAR.com, there were 177 passes for the lead in all, and 11,977 green flag passes, both track records.
Earnhardt Jr. had finished 2nd in 3 of the previous 4 Daytona 500s, and the victory was his first win in his last 56 starts, since Michigan in June 2012. Junior had to hold off Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Brad Keselowski over the final laps, including a two-lap dash after the final restart, to claim the victory. The win was Earnhardt’s 3rd (in a points-paying event) since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, after previously winning the 500 driving the #8 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the team started by his father before his death.
Ironically enough, one of the big storylines leading up to the 500 was the return of the #3 car to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., as it was driven to the pole by rookie Austin Dillon. So, the 3 led the field to green, while an Earnhardt led it to the checkers.
Steve Letarte won his first 500 as a crew chief, although he had won the race previously as a crew member for Jeff Gordon, and did so in his final career attempt. Starting in 2015, Letarte will move to the NBC broadcast booth, so this will be his final season on the #88 pit box. Many believe there is, therefore, a greater sense of urgency for both Letarte and Earnhardt Jr., because both realize if they want to win together, they have to do it now. Perhaps that sense of urgency helped contribute to a flawless Speedweeks, leading to a Daytona 500 victory. While Junior didn’t win everything (in fact, he didn’t win anything until the 500), he ran well in every event and kept his equipment clean (with the exception of a Sprint Unlimited crash that he didn’t cause; that was not in the car the 88 team planned to run in the Daytona 500).
With the win, Earnhardt now leads the series standings, and with the new Sprint Cup points format, he has almost guaranteed a spot in the Chase Grid. The only way he would not qualify would be in the event of the series having 17 or more race winners in the first 26 races, and Junior being 17th in points out of those drivers, or the event of Junior not attempting all the races without a valid medical excuse for his absence, or falling out of the top 30 in points (those last two scenarios won’t happen).
2014 Daytona 500 Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 54, 48
2. Denny Hamlin, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 16, 43
3. Brad Keselowski, 33, Penske Racing, Ford, 13, 42
4. Jeff Gordon, 6, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 32, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 40
6. Matt Kenseth, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 38
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 34, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 37
8. Greg Biffle, 25, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 8, 37
9. Austin Dillon, 1, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 36
10. Casey Mears, 28, Germain Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
11. Joey Logano, 35, Penske Racing, Ford, 2, 34
13. Kevin Harvick, 38, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Carl Edwards, 30, Roush Fenway Racing, 8, 28
19. Kyle Busch, 37, Joe Gibbs Racing, 19, 26
35. Tony Stewart, 21, Stewart-Haas Racing, 0, 9