It was a day where superstars shined at the front. Michael Waltrip. Jimmie Johnson. Dale Earnhardt Jr., coming out of nowhere in the final laps to challenge the Home Depot Chevrolet of Tony Stewart. But when the Smoke cleared, it was the Rainbow Warrior out front at the finish to claim his third Daytona 500 win.
In a race full of storylines, Gordon took the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. just before the race’s final caution on lap 197 and withstood the challenge of a green-white-checker finish to win the 47th Daytona 500 in front of a crowd of 200,000 at the speedway. It was the first time ever the race had gone past its scheduled distance, with Kasey Kahne’s crash causing the overtime rule instituted in 2004 to come into effect and cause a 203-lap, 507.5-mile race. On the restart on lap 202, Gordon found Earnhardt Jr. on his back bumper, but the No. 8 car was snookered on the restart and passed by Kurt Busch’s Sharpie Ford for second place. The Budweiser Chevrolet fell to third, and the three cars pulled far enough away from the pack in the final two laps that no one else proved a factor in the final rundown.
“I tell you, when the 8 car got that lead, I thought it was over, done,” said a visibly excited Gordon after the victory. “He looked so strong. I knew we had a good car, but I had no idea we’d ever get up there beside him, let alone pass him. I was shocked that I not only got up beside him, but I passed him.”
“You know, just a fantastic day, a fantastic car.”
But Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. had already dispatched of what was the fastest car in the field just before Kahne’s crash. Tony Stewart was clearly the class of the field in the race’s second half. The Home Depot Chevrolet led a race-high 107 laps, and was out front for over 30 straight after the leaders made their final pit stops during the race’s sixth caution on lap 162. But Stewart was without a teammate and a drafting partner, as Bobby Labonte’s engine blew 14 laps into the race and new teammate Jason Leffler crashed on lap 168. That made the No. 20 car of Stewart a sitting duck in the end, as Gordon stalked him from behind lap after lap, with teammate Jimmie Johnson lurking on the back bumper of the DuPont Chevrolet for much of that time.
That’s why everyone was surprised when it wasn’t the Hendrick cars but Earnhardt Jr. who came up through the field and passed Stewart on lap 195. The No. 8 car hadn’t led a lap all day, with Earnhardt struggling with the handling of the car, and having been spun out on pit road by Jeff Burton, a move which cost the No. 8 car track position and left him running about mid-pack. But after a rapid series of cautions which set up the finish of the race, Earnhardt Jr. climbed to third, and came out of nowhere on a restart with seven laps remaining to pass Gordon for second. He then side-drafted off of Stewart to grab a run at the No. 20 car on the outside. Stewart drifted back, yielding to Gordon and others as Gordon came back on the inside, then the outside to get a run at new leader Earnhardt Jr. He found the speed he needed on the backstretch of lap 197, passing just before the caution and sealing the victory for the DuPont Chevrolet.
“He had such a run,” said Earnhardt Jr. about Gordon’s final pass. “I was by myself. I mean, it was basically the same pass that Michael put on me there at the 150 qualifier. He was going by so fast, I couldn’t even draft by the side of his car, (to) slow him down.”
Stewart, frustrated at being knocked out of the lead, ended up beating and banging with Johnson for fourth place at the end, ending up seventh and nearly crashing the Lowe’s Chevrolrt after the cars passed the start-finish line. Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus was upset about the contact after the race, and reportedly confronted Stewart, to which a coy Stewart responded, “If Chad wants to talk, I’m easily accessible,” while commenting on his run in front of a crowd of reporters. Drivers Johnson and Stewart ended up being called to the NASCAR transporter, and both emerged claiming the incident had quickly been put behind them.
Some outstanding runs were made behind the front three of Gordon, Busch, and Earnhardt Jr. Scott Riggs ran up front all day in just his second Daytona 500 and finished a career-best fourth in the Valvoline Chevolet. Both Mark Martin (6th) and Rusty Wallace (10th) finished in the Top 10 in what was likely the final Daytona 500 start for each. And Kevin LePage, with an unsponsored, underdog team, got the Lucky Dog pass to get back on the lead lap late in the event, and charged up the field to finish ninth, a fairy tale ending to a team that didn’t have enough money to do anything but start and park just six months ago, let alone compete for a spot in the Daytona 500.
Other contenders for the win found themselves in the garage. Matt Kenseth and Burton joined Bobby Labonte with motor problems. Michael Waltrip’s engine also blew on lap 161 after leading over 40 laps and remaining in the Top 5 for a majority of the race. With Martin Truex, Jr. and Kenny Wallace also suffering mechanical failure, Earnhardt, Jr. became the only one of the D.E.I. contingent to finish this year’s 500.
The race also featured a record-tying 11 cautions and some of the usual Daytona multi-car wrecks, the worst of which happened at the front of the pack on lap 184. Greg Biffle got loose, made contact with Scott Riggs, and spun out in front of the field, collecting contenders Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, and Scott Wimmer, whose car flipped through the apron of turn four before coming to rest near the end of Calamity Corner. Then, on the restart from that wreck on lap 189, a slow start caused Ryan Newman to punt Carl Edwards into the wall, setting off a chain-reaction crash that feature Mike Skinner, Travis Kvapil, John Andretti, and Mike Bliss. Thankfully, no one was hurt in any of the incidents.
Johnson outlasted his own personal battle with Stewart to finish fifth in the race, while Martin, Stewart, Sterling Marlin, LePage, and Rusty Wallace rounded out the Top 10. Gordon will now lead the point standings heading into next weekend’s race at California Speedway, the Auto Club 500.
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