Story by Drew Hierwarter
At approximately 1:00 pm on Sunday, February 26, the drivers were introduced to the fans, the color guard presented the nation’s colors, the invocation was given, and the National Anthem was performed.
The 54th annual Daytona 500 was officially underway.
At exactly 12:55 AM on Tuesday, February 28th, Matt Kenseth was the first racer under the checkered flag finally and officially bringing the 54th Daytona 500 to a conclusion some 36 hours after it began.
In between those two events was rain, track drying, more rain, filling TV time with replays of earlier races, more rain, official announcements of rescheduled start times, more rain, watching weather radar, more rain, watching jet dryers circle the track, and then, after all that, when the green flag finally fell, (at 7:00 PM on Monday!) that’s when things got really strange.
After three months of car preparation and two weeks at the track, five-time champion Jimmy Johnson is wrecked just a few hundred yards into the second lap of the race.
Also damaged in the same wreck are the cars of defending race champion Trevor Bayne and media darling Danica Patrick. Both cars required extensive repairs in the garage and immediately threw out the TV broadcast’s planned story line.
The race then settled down, for the most part, and drivers just concentrated on saving their equipment to the end. Except for Jeff Gordon, apparently, whose engine expired in a huge fire ball. He blamed faulty gauges but it wouldn’t be the only fire of the night.
During a caution period with 40 laps still to go, Juan Pablo Montoya was trying to catch up to the pack after a pit stop. He was running down the back straight at a pretty good clip when something in the car’s suspension broke and sent the car careening into the back of a jet dryer truck. The impact not only destroyed Montoya’s car and the truck but also set 200 gallons of jet fuel ablaze!
The fire grew and spread down the banking being fed and intensified by the leaking fuel for several agonizing minutes before fire fighters could get the conflagration under control. No one was injured but the resulting clean up required a two hour red flag period.
During this time, with the entire field of race cars parked on the back stretch, it turned into a driver’s social hour with everybody just hanging out and telling stories and having all sorts of fun and frivolity. Brad Keselowski was even tweeting to his fans with his smart phone! (He claims to have picked up more than 1,000 new “followers” during the red flag period!)
And speaking of the fans, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to those fans. You would expect that once the race was postponed to Monday that many of them would have to go home. Back to jobs and family and the reality of everyday life. Flights were booked, bags were packed, and motels were checked out of. But the stands were nearly full at the start of the race and, on TV at least, it appeared as if nobody left early even as the race dragged on past midnight. They are truly amazing!
So the race finally ended, going a few laps extra for a green-white-checkered finish. Kenseth got help from his Roush-Yates Racing teammate Gregg Biffle who held back the pushing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. by dragging his brakes for most of the last lap. Junior was finally able to get around Biffle after the fourth turn but too late to catch Kenseth who captured his second Daytona 500 trophy.
In a final piece of irony for the longest Daytona 500 weekend on record (the race has never been postponed before) many of the team’s planes could not leave Daytona after the race because the airport in Charlotte was socked in with fog and nothing could land.
They all got one more night in Daytona just for good measure!