DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — He waited 10 years, so what was 10 more hours?
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 39-year-old namesake of late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, on Sunday became a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 on the 10th anniversary of his first triumph in the Great American Race. He did it by enduring a marathon that took nearly 10 hours to complete because of a rain delay of 6 hours 21 minutes 40 seconds.
Despite having to wait a decade between victories in the season-opening crown jewel, the first of which came three years after his father was killed in a last-lap crash of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s patience was rewarded when he won a wild, crash-marred, green-white-checkered finish at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt joined other two-time Daytona 500 winners Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson, the last two of whom Earnhardt finished runner-up to in the last two 500s.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport, aside from obviously accepting the championship trophy,’’ said Earnhardt, whose $1,506,363 victory came in the year the No. 3 his father made famous was brought back by rookie pole sitter Austin Dillon, the 23-year-old grandson of car owner Richard Childress.
“I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to feel that again,’’ Earnhardt said. “But, man, it feels just as good, if not better than the first, because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all them years.’’
Earnhardt gave car owner Rick Hendrick a lift to Victory Lane in his No. 88 Chevrolet after he held off Denny Hamlin and third-place finisher Brad Keselowski to snap a winless streak of 55 races, dating to a victory at Michigan in 2012.
“I knew it was going to be tough for anyone to pass him,’’ said Hamlin, who was thwarted from becoming the first driver to sweep Speedweeks after winning the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday night and his 150-mile qualifying heat in the Budweiser Duel Thursday night.
“As long as you’re the leader, you’ve got two-wide behind you, you can play both lanes, which is what those guys did to perfection the entire fuel run. It’s what we did to win the two races we won,’’ Hamlin said. “Of course, you’re going to have a tough time getting around an Earnhardt in a green-white-checkered at Daytona, anyway. It’s obviously a significant day for their family and great for the race team.’’
Earnhardt’s 20th Sprint Cup victory was also his first in the Daytona 500 with outgoing crew chief Steve Letarte, of Portland, Maine, who will leave Hendrick Motorsports at season’s end to become a broadcaster for NBC.
“You work all winter long to come down here with your best equipment,’’ said Letarte. “But there’s nothing better that I can think of than giving Mr. Hendrick another Daytona 500 victory.’’
More important, the victory virtually assured Earnhardt a spot in the newly expanded 16-man Chase format. “If everyone is telling the truth, then I don’t got to worry [about making the Chase],’’ Earnhardt said. “But we’re going for the jugular this year.’’
Earnhardt benefited from some drafting support in the final 20 laps from teammates Jimmie Johnson, last year’s Daytona 500 winner and NASCAR’s reigning six-time champion, and Jeff Gordon, who finished fourth after helping Earnhardt scoot away from the field on a final restart with two laps to go.
“He’s been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years,’’ Johnson said of Earnhardt. “He got it done tonight. He did an awesome job. If you can be the lead car and control the lanes, like Junior did in the closing laps, it’s a good spot to be in. It’s not an easy job by any means. I was trying to get into that position and I got into the outside lane and it never really materialized, so I slid back some. But I was so proud of him and our Hendrick Motorsports team.’’
After the delay, the drivers went back to racing on Lap 47 after nine pace laps. Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Keselowski took turns leading the pack in an intense stretch of double-file and three-wide racing over a 10-lap stretch after the restart.
Busch and Aric Almirola, who had been running at the front of the pack, were dealt setbacks when NASCAR officials hit them with stop-and-go penalties for removing equipment from the pit area.
Paul Menard held off Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Earnhardt, Keselowski, and Joey Logano at the midway point, Lap 100.
Johnson towed Earnhardt to the front to take the lead for the first time on Lap 107. Johnson took the long route to the front after starting 32d, having to go to the rear of the field after he wrecked two cars. But the car crew chief Chad Knaus rolled out proved to be even better than the two Johnson wrecked.
With 72 laps to go, Johnson led the front-runners into the pits, a group of 11 cars that included Earnhardt, who made a two-tire stop.
Earnhardt made a pivotal pass of Carl Edwards on the backstretch of Lap 134, which enabled him to stay in front of a 13-car wreck on Lap 147. The mayhem was triggered by Harvick, who was running the low line three-wide through Turn 4 when he drifted up and caused Brian Scott’s car to sideswipe Almirola.
Almirola spun hard to the left, shot across the track in front of heavy traffic, and clipped the cars of Dillon and Danica Patrick. The cars of Patrick as well as Michael Waltrip wound up retiring from the race.
Another 10-car wreck 15 laps later, triggered when Dillon’s squirrely car clipped fellow rookie Kyle Larson in Turn 4, pared the lead pack to 25 drivers, setting the stage for an intense finish.
“This race car was awesome,’’ Earnhardt said. “We showed them all night long how good a car we had . . . We just played off battles after battles and we got a little help from Jeff on that restart and got away and sort of tried to take care of it there. But this is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted because this doesn’t happen twice, let alone once. So I’m real thankful.’’