DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Danica Patrick had her Daytona 500 debut spoiled by a five-car melee in Turn 1 shortly after the start of last night’s race.
Elliott Sadler triggered it when he tapped Jimmie Johnson from behind and caused Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet to turn hard right and launch into the outside retaining wall near Turn 1. Johnson’s car bounced off the wall into heavy traffic and collected Patrick’s car along with those belonging to David Ragan, who speared Johnson on the driver’s side door, Kyle Busch, and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.
It was Patrick’s third wreck of Speedweeks. She crashed in the first heat of the Gatorade Duel last Thursday, then again in Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener, which she started from the pole position. In each instance, she was not responsible for the accidents.
Patrick retired her car to the garage, where it underwent repairs. She got back on the track on Lap 64, 62 laps behind the leaders and finished 38th.
Early night for Johnson
Johnson’s early wreck ended his night long before his car reached full speed. The five-time NASCAR champion was 42d - his worst finish in 53 starts spanning four series at the famed track. Since winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, Johnson has been 39th, 27th, 31st, 35th, and 27th.
This one was maybe more disappointing than the others, especially since he was coming off a career-low sixth in points in 2011.
“I’m just really, really bummed to start the season this way,’’ Johnson said. “For all the hard work that has gone into getting . . . ready for tonight, we didn’t get to complete 2 1/2 miles of green-flag racing. So, I’m pretty bummed.’’
Martin Truex Jr., with strong drafting support from Denny Hamlin, wound up claiming the $200,000 halfway bonus when he wrested the lead from Greg Biffle on Lap 100.
The last time a driver won the race after leading at the halfway point was Davey Allison in 1992.
NASCAR Sprint Cup teams already faced the logistical nightmare of having to travel cross-country with little time to prepare for the next race, Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. NASCAR officials adjusted Phoenix’s schedule to allow haulers to park at the track at 5 a.m. Friday instead of 5 p.m. Thursday.
It was not certain what effect a postponed Daytona 500 would have on the sport, since it serves as NASCAR’s Super Bowl, around which many of the sport’s corporate partners revolve their advertising campaigns.
For winner Matt Kenseth, though, the postponement wrung a lot of the pomp and pageantry out of the event.
There was no champion’s breakfast yesterday - at which the winning car would have been enshrined in the track’s museum and the winning driver, crew chief, and owner would have been presented with rings and leather jackets - and no week-long media blitz.
“I don’t know that you can place any kind of quantification on what that means just yet until it’s all said and done,’’ NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “But certainly we’d like to think that when we do run the Daytona 500 and the [Harley J. Earl] trophy is handed to the winner and there is a Daytona 500 champion for 2012 that that sustains and then launches us into the 2012 season will all the right effort and promotions.’’
Edwards bowled over
Although the drivers retreated to their motorcoaches Sunday to wait out the rain delay, pole sitter Carl Edwards said he spent his downtime repairing the broken awning of his motorcoach in a steady downpour.
“That was kind of an ordeal,’’ said Edwards, who was on the roof of his motorcoach, “pulling fuses, trying to figure it out. That was fun.’’
Edwards then “just hung out’’ and watched the Pro Bowlers Association US Open. “It was the 69th US Open and Pete Weber won,’’ Edwards said. “I don’t know if you guys are Pete Weber fans or not. That guy is intense. Turns out he’s from Missouri. That was pretty interesting.’’
A native of Columbia, Mo., Edwards had a rooting interest in the outcome.
“Yeah, I got into that a little bit,’’ he said. “It was inspiring. He had to throw a strike, and he did, on his final throw. He won his fifth [US Open] title. Pretty cool.’’
Bobby Labonte, who made his 20th consecutive Daytona 500 start, was looking to rekindle a streak of another sort. “I went through a spell, every time we had a race that was delayed for hours or a day, it seemed I won,’’ he said. “I won a few of those. So [the postponement] is all right by me if it turns out the same. I’ll be fine with that.’’ . . . When the race was delayed to prime time, World Wrestling Entertainment star John Cena, a native of West Newbury, Mass., was forced to back out from the pre-race ceremonies because of a scheduling conflict . . . Fox drew a 4.5 in the overnight Nielsen ratings for its rain-delay coverage Sunday . . . The last time the Daytona 500 was shortened was in 2009, Matt Kenseth winning after completing 152 laps (380 miles) . . . Forty-six years ago yesterday in NASCAR history, Richard Petty became the first two-time winner of the Daytona 500 in a race that was shortened by two laps because of rain. Petty, who was the only driver to finish on the lead lap, finished ahead of Cale Yarborough, who was one lap down, and David Pearson, who finished two laps down.