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Dale Jr. survives the deluge to win his second Daytona 500

NASCAR and race officials were hoping to pull a fast one on Mother Nature on Sunday, Feb. 23, as nearly 300,000 adoring fans stared up into the darkening skies and crossed their fingers that the 56th running of the Great American Race would go off without a hitch. Unlike a couple years ago, it looked as if luck was on their side, as the pre-race festivities, including a concert by reigning Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan, a flyover by the world-renowned USAF Thunderbirds, and singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc sang the National Anthem without a hitch.

56th Daytona 500 highlights-slide0
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Connor has been a Gordon fan all of his short life.
Dana Zacharko

Marvel's Captain America, Actor Chis Evans, gave the command for the drivers to start their engines and actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise waved the green flag to start the race. Then, after only 39 laps and a brief caution, the rains came down!

"The Daytona 500 was well done with the activities, entertainment, and attractions at the Midway. NASCAR does a great job of keeping fans connected with the drivers in various ways (meet and greets, autograph signing, interviews on stage, etc) The energy at the races is always exciting," stated Dana Zacharko, a local teacher who enjoyed the race with her son, Connor. "The rain delay did stink but NASCAR did a great job keeping us updated with announcements and really trying to ensure that the race would continue."

The race was red flagged for 6 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds, but eventually restarted just before 9:00 p.m.

"I didn't like the rain delay because we had to figure out something to do for such a long time and stay dry," added 9 year old Connor Zacharko, who has been a Gordon fan all of his short life.

Once the race took the green flag once again, it seemed as though all the drivers and teams were still watching the radar. The race pace quickened to an average of just over 200 miles per hour, and was only slowed by caution seven times for a total of 39 laps. The impending downpours lit up the radar like a Christmas Tree throughout the event, but the rain held off until just after Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Gatorade Victory Lane in a thrilling finish to the annual DAYTONA 500.

“To win this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt after climbing out of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel this again and it feels just as good, if not better than the first (win) because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all of those years."

After being the runner-up three of the last four years in the DAYTONA 500, Earnhardt – who had not won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway since his Budweiser Duel and Sprint Unlimited wins during the 2008 Speedweeks – took the time to let it soak in with a long, reverse-lap drive down the frontstretch of the 2.5-mile tri-oval, showing his appreciation for the win and for the fans.

“This place just has a lot of great history,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s a great race track. You drive into it and you get a special feeling you don’t get anywhere else. As soon as you drive through the tunnel you know where you’re at. There are some great facilities and unique tracks and places we go that I have a lot of appreciation for, but nothing like Daytona. Once you win it, it’s like a color TV – once you watch color TV for the first time, you don’t want to go back to black and white. When I won it for the first time (in 2004), I just couldn’t wait to get back to Victory Lane.”

Coming in second was Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. After winning The Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race in the Budweiser Duel, Hamlin hoped to become the first driver to ever win all three of the Sprint Cup Series races during Budweiser Speedweeks. Hamlin had a strong car and remained in the lead pack throughout the night despite being without radio communication for the majority of the race.

“There’s a lot to be disappointed about, but there’s a lot to be happy about,” Hamlin said. “My radios weren’t working so I had to wing it those last 150 laps on my own. With not having a spotter there on that last (restart), I didn’t know whether to back up more. I was just trying not to wreck anyone, trying not to get in trouble, trying to spot all six corners by myself. Still a great run, but I am a little disappointed."

Being his own spotter was quite a feat for Hamlin in a race where the top drivers in the world showcased their talent racing two- and three-wide the entire race. There were 42 lead changes among 18 drivers, the most in the season opener since 2011.

Hendrick Motorsports had a strong showing and held the top-three spots with under 10 laps to go. Gordon ended up fourth and defending race and series champion Jimmie Johnson fifth.

"I am glad Jeff Gordon came in fourth at my first Daytona 500," Connor added. "It would have been better if he won."

Chevrolet held five of top-10 positions and has won the DAYTONA 500 six of the last seven years.

“That was a perfect race,” agreed Hendrick, who is enjoying his eighth DAYTONA 500 win as an owner. “That was a perfect race. Dale – I’ve never seen anybody drive a car (like that). He drove the wheels off the car every lap. Stevie called a perfect race, pit stops were perfect and TJ (Majors) did an unbelievable job up there spotting. I’m so proud.”

The 43-car field included nine former DAYTONA 500 champions and seven Rookie of the Year candidates. With a ninth-place finish, the highest-finishing rookie was Austin Dillon, who qualified the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the pole and led the first lap. The race marked the return of the No. 3 car to NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. Dillon was involved in multiple incidents during the race and admitted it was a learning experience.

“It was a good run. I felt like we were a pinball out there a little bit,” Dillon said. “I learned a lot. Definitely the rookie stripes were out tonight, but somehow we ended up with a top 10.”

When you mention the number 43, your first thought is undoubtedly of "The King" Richard Petty. His team, spearheaded by driver Aric Almirola, did not have quite the finish that they hoped for, but are prepared to take on the short track at Phoenix.

"We went into the season with a lot of excitement and hard work. Everyone knows Daytona is a crap shoot. I'm proud of the way we performed there and the speed we showed, but I'm really looking forward to seeing what we have at Phoenix. This weekend will be the first test for our team to see the fruits of our labor and investments in competition over the off-season. We tested at New Symrna Speedway twice and Nashville Speedway once and feel we found some things that will help our program throughout the year, so we've had this weekend's race circled on the calendar as an opportunity to see where we stand."

After putting in a full day’s work and participating in his own version of ‘Survivor’, GEICO driver Casey Mears’ patience, sharp reflexes and quick-action throughout the evening resulted in a 10th place finish in the 56th running of the Daytona 500.

“I’m just so happy for the guys on this GEICO team because they worked really hard during the off-season to make the conversion to Chevrolet and build the new relationship with Richard Childress Racing (Germain Racing’s technical partner). They were logging some pretty heavy hours away from their families, so it’s great to see smiles on their faces tonight,” Mears said after exiting his #13 GEICO Chevrolet SS. “It’s exciting to think about where we started and how great it’s been to have GEICO as our partner, and have a dedicated owner like Bob Germain. They’re both so involved in what we’re doing and believe in our team. Now, with KMC Wheels on-board, we’ve added another sponsor that is excited about our program. Each year we’ve gotten a lot better and I’m glad the 2014 season is off to a strong start. It’s always nice to walk away from the Daytona 500 with a top ten finish and give our sponsors and team owner something to be excited about. I just can’t thank GEICO and Bob Germain enough for giving us the opportunity to come out here and race each week.”

Winning the Great American Race carries a great deal of media responsibilities, and NASCAR's most popular driver is definitely up to the task. Running on only one hour of sleep, Earnhardt Jr. embarked on his week-long whirlwind media tour Monday morning after installing his No. 88 National Guard Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet inside the Daytona International Speedway Ticket and Tours Building. The car will be part of the Daytona International Speedway tours program and will be returned to the team at the 2015 DAYTONA 500, a tradition that has been in existence since 1996.

“I was taking pictures and doing media until about 3 a.m.,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The team was having most of the fun. When I got over there, they were out of spirits so we found some more and we just sat around and talked about how cool it was – just punching each other in the shoulder until about 4 a.m. and then I had to hang it up.”

During the Champion’s Breakfast, Speedway President Joie Chitwood presented all three DAYTONA 500 champions with their leather jackets, Hendrick with his Harley J. Earl DAYTONA 500 trophy and Letarte with the Cannonball Baker trophy. Chitwood and Earnhardt Jr. also unveiled the logo for next year’s 57th annual DAYTONA 500.

“This race is such a big deal,” said Letarte. “The whole thing felt pretty surreal. What races do you still celebrate the next day? You have a breakfast and keep getting trophies and jackets. I’m proud of the team we’ve assembled. They’re a great group of guys and deserve most of the credit. They built a great race car, Dale drove a great race and we’re excited.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won Sunday night’s Daytona 500 in dramatic fashion in a final-laps shootout, will visit ESPN’s campus on Tuesday, Feb. 25, and appear on a variety of ESPN platforms. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver will talk about his second win in the “Great American Race” on SportsCenter, Mike and Mike, NASCAR Now and more. He has a full week to enjoy his points lead and victory at the high banks of Daytona, before the meat of the regular season begins.

"The race was awesome and I am glad Jeff Gordon came in third at my first Daytona 500," stated Connor, a year old race fan. "It would have been better if he won. I didn't like the rain delay because we had to figure out something to so for such a long time and stay dry. I was excited when it started again."

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will hit the track at Phoenix International Raceway for the opening practice session on Friday, February 28th, at 2:00 p.m. (ET). Qualifying will follow at 6:40 p.m. (ET).

The Profit on CNBC 500 presented by Small Business Fueling America NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is on Sunday, March 2, and it will be televised live on FOX beginning at 3:00 p.m. (ET). The Motor Racing Network (MRN) will carry the live radio broadcast.

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