The Daytona 500 owed fans a big payoff on Feb. 23. After rain delayed the 500 for over six hours, with well over 100 laps remaining, Daytona went under the lights for everyone who was left. Yet those who stayed got to see the most popular driver in NASCAR win a rare race, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Victory Lane in Daytona.
Earnhardt topped his legendary father by winning his second Daytona 500, and first since 2004. He held off Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and the threat of another rainstorm in the final laps, leading a race high 54 laps in the process.
Over a dozen drivers were within a second of each other at various points in the final 30 laps. Yet it was Earnhardt who narrowly held them off much of the way, in spite of his drought at Daytona and virtually every other track in NASCAR. His popularity and name had only helped him win one race in the previous five years, and finish second in three of the past four Daytona 500's.
But in a NASCAR season with a new points system, new Chase for the Cup format and new emphasis on winning, this may be a new Earnhardt as well. With his first Daytona 500 triumph in a decade, the next big goal is to win the first NASCAR championship of his career. Coincidentally, it would help him stop Johnson from equaling Earnhardt Sr's all-time record of seven championships this year.
Johnson started that quest with a solid fifth-place finish, although he couldn't defend his Daytona 500 title -- a title that launched his sixth championship campaign last season. 2012 NASCAR champion Keselowski started his quest to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 season by finishing third.
In the back of the field, Tony Stewart's first race back in months ended with a 35'th place finish, while a crash doomed Danica Patrick to 40'th. 2012 Daytona winner Trevor Bayne crashed with 17 laps left, yet rookie pole sitter Austin Dillon wound up in ninth.
Yet the day-turned-night finally belonged to Earnhardt, at least when the rain finally ceded the spotlight. As it turned out, however, the wait was worth it for him in more ways than one.