DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The first time around, he didn’t have to go quite the distance. But the second time around? Matt Kenseth went the distance - and then some - to win the 54th running of the Daytona 500 early Tuesday morning in a green-white-checkered finish at 12:55 a.m. over runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Kenseth delivered car owner Jack Roush his 300th NASCAR victory, going two laps beyond the race’s 200-lap distance.
“It feels great,’’ said Kenseth, whose first Daytona 500 win in 2009 came in a rain-shortened race that was halted after 152 laps. “We even went into overtime a little bit, since we didn’t quite go the whole distance the first time we won it.’’
Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, completed only 380 of the 500 miles to win three years ago. But this time, he went 505 miles in what was a torture test of will, determination, and above all, patience.
“Yeah, I mean, my patience was tested a lot,’’ said Kenseth, who reaped a $1,589,387 payday and placed Red Sox owner John Henry, the owner of record on Kenseth’s car, atop the owner points standings.
It was a test of patience, too, for the other 42 drivers in the field, who because of rain on Sunday had to wait nearly 36 hours before the green flag was finally dropped on the season opener for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
“My feeling, the thing that comes to my mind, is that NASCAR can’t catch a break,’’ said Earnhardt, recalling the pothole incident that marred Jamie McMurray’s victory two years ago.
“We just have some unfortunate things happen such as the rain delay, potholes in the track a couple of years ago, or whatever, things like that.
“We’re a good sport, and we’re just trying to give a good product, and it’s unfortunate that our biggest event was delayed. But I think everybody worked hard to put out a good product tonight, and it was good for us.’’
The race was postponed by rain for the first time in its history, rescheduled for a noon start Monday, then pushed back to 7 p.m. because of more inclement weather in the forecast. Then, with 40 laps to go, it was red-flagged for more than two hours when a jet-fuel fire engulfed the banking in Turn 3.
Juan Pablo Montoya ignited the inferno while he was circling the track under caution. Montoya’s No. 42 Chevrolet got loose and spun as it entered the corner, slamming into the rear of a dryer vehicle that was creeping along the outer retaining wall during the race’s seventh caution.
Montoya climbed out of his smoldering wreck, unhurt. The driver of the jet dryer, Duane Barnes, was taken to a local hospital for a precautionary evaluation and later released.
“Something just fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer,’’ Montoya said. “I felt a vibration and came in [to the pits]. They looked at everything, and everything was OK, and I still told them, ‘I think there is something that broke,’ and I was coming back into the pits and the car just spun by itself.’’
This created an unprecedented situation for track officials: a jet-fuel fire that threatened the integrity of the track surface.
“Obviously, the last 48 hours were very challenging in terms of rain delays and trying to complete the 500 miles,’’ said track president Joie Chitwood III. “But what the team did today in terms of responding to a burning jet dryer on the racetrack, I think, is phenomenal, and the fact we got to finish the race under green is a heck of an accomplishment.’’
NASCAR president Mike Helton lauded Chitwood and the track’s fire and rescue personnel for getting the fire under control and scrubbing the surface clean, using Tide laundry detergent.
“I want to compliment Joie and his staff,’’ Helton said, “for the effort that went into taking something that was very complicated, and could’ve been even more complicated, and pulling it together so that we could finish the Daytona 500.’’
It seemed only fitting that the protracted finale of Speedweeks was decided by a green-white-checkered overtime finish induced after an eight-car melee on the front stretch brought out the race’s 10th and final caution with three laps to go.
Kenseth got strong drafting support from Greg Biffle, whom he defeated with a slingshot move on the last lap to win Thursday’s second 150-mile qualifier in the Gatorade Duel.
Biffle, who was strong all week in his No. 16 Ford and was second-fastest behind teammate Carl Edwards during pole qualifications, was unable to keep pace with Kenseth on the final restart and wound up getting edged out for second by Earnhardt.
“I think the 16 had one of the strongest cars all week, and I think ours was right there, as well,’’ said Kenseth, who led twice for 50 laps, including the last 38. “Our car for some reason was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic. It took a long time to get to the front. But, like Thursday, once we were in the front, it was hard for anybody to get locked onto you.’’
Asked if his second Daytona 500 victory, given the circumstances, was in any way a vindication after he won a rain-shortened race three years ago in which he led only the last six laps, Kenseth replied, “Well, yes and no.
“The last one, I know a lot was written about it, and it was rain-shortened and all that, but we all knew it was going to rain.
“We did a lot that day. We charged to the front, had one of the better cars, was able to make the pass right before it started raining, which was good timing. But I still felt like we had a fast car and we didn’t luck into that. We worked hard for that.
“But, yeah, it’s nice to go the whole distance and survive a green-white-checkered, too. Because you just don’t know what’s going to happen in speed races.’’