Matt Kenseth entered Daytona winless in his last 36 starts. That winless streak is now history.
Kenseth passed Elliott Sadler in turn 3 on lap 145 for the lead under threatening skies. Half a lap after the pass, the yellow came out for a crash involving the No. 98 of Paul Menard and the No. 31 of Jeff Burton.
During the caution, the heavens opened up, and the race never restarted. After less than 15 minutes, NASCAR called the race at 6:48 p.m. with 152 laps (380 miles) completed. Kenseth was thus declared the winner of the 51st Daytona 500.
Once the official word came out of the race being called, the Roush Fenway Racing team was jubilant. Kenseth showed a seemingly uncharacteristically high amount of emotion after getting out of the car.
“It’s gonna be really wet out here because I’m crying like a baby, but I’ve just got to thank my team and thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity first of all,” an extremely happy Kenseth said. “Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment. It’s just an unbelievable thing.”
Behind Kenseth was 2007 winner Kevin Harvick.
“To be honest with you, we were off a little bit,” Harvick said in the post-race press conference. “[We] made some huge adjustments the second or third pit stop and got ourselves in the back again. [We] were able to make the car where it drove really good.”
AJ Allmendinger finished in a career-best third place in the No. 44 Valvoline Dodge.
“The Valvoline Dodge, the car was really fast today. Could run up front all day. Was really consistent,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a great result. I kinda wish we could have been able to finish [the full 500 miles].”
Despite coming home with a top-five finish, Sadler was dejected after the race ended.
“On one hand, I’m very happy and on the other, I’m really disappointed,” Sadler said right after the race was called. “We got a top-five finish today for Stanley, Dodge and Richard Petty Motorsports and that’s a great [Daytona 500] finish for us. On the other hand, I was one lap away from winning the Daytona 500 and that’s hard to swallow.”
David Ragan, despite causing an early accident with Aric Almirola, finished in sixth position, followed by Michael Waltrip. Tony Stewart, in his first race as an owner-driver, finished a strong eighth after leading 15 laps.
After the race, Stewart expressed frustration with the packs during the race.
“I just tried to get the right line to go with [me],” Stewart said on pit road. “We’ve been hung out to dry about 8,000 times in 150 laps here, so screw ‘em, we’ll do it on our own.”
Before the big crash on lap 125, the event was dominated by Kyle Busch. When Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s Toyota was out front, it was as if someone had posted a “No Passing Zone” sign. Barely anyone could do anything with Busch. Pit stops under the fifth caution of the race dropped Busch back a few positions for the restart.
Then, on the lap immediately after the restart, the Big One occurred. This wreck was triggered by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was a lap down as a result of pitting with his right-front tire outside of the pit box during the previous caution, being steered down to the apron on the backstretch by the No. 83 of Brian Vickers, who was also a lap down. Earnhardt moved back up above the yellow line, and then bumped Vickers.
This bump spun Vickers into the pack, taking out nine other cars, including Kyle Busch, whose car was too damaged to continue, leaving him with a 41st place finish.
Kyle Busch was extremely frustrated after the crash.
“One guy that had problems all day on pit road made his problems our problems and then our problems a big problem,” Busch said.
As for the two drivers that sparked the crash, they each had their own versions of what happened out there.
“We’re all racing for the ‘lucky dog’ there and my goal was to keep Junior behind me,” Vickers said. “I went to block him… I beat him to the yellow line and then he just turned us.” Vickers was unable to continue and was credited with a 39th-place finish.
Earnhardt Jr. had a different opinion of what happened.
“…I had a really, really good run and Brian [Vickers], he was side-by-side with somebody for the lead (Author’s Note: They were actually both one lap down, so they were actually racing each other for the free pass) and I went on the inside and he drove me down, down below the yellow line,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the race was red flagged. “I didn’t have much control over the car at that point. I was just trying to get back on the racetrack and I hit him in the quarterpanel and spun him out.” “If he had held his ground… I wasn’t even racing for position. That was unfortunate.”
Earnhardt Jr. eventually got back on the lead lap and finished 27th.
Even though the action seen after the official halfway point of the race may say otherwise, this race was officially one of the least competitive Daytona 500s as far as lead changes go. The lead was only swapped nine times (officially) amongst nine different drivers during the 152 laps run. Kyle Busch, with 88 laps led, earned the five bonus points for leading the most laps before he crashed out.
Before the threat of rain became real to the teams, the race ran at a somewhat relaxed pace. Granted, the drivers were all going 100%, but they weren’t taking all that many chances out on the track. The tires may have played a role in this, since the sun came early in the event. Some drivers, like Jeff Gordon, had tire problems attributed to a bad setup choice. David Stremme and Travis Kvapil both blew tires, causing cautions.