Feb 23, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr (88) celebrates winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (USA TODAY) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated a frantic two-lap dash to the finish and won Sunday's Daytona 500, ending a 10-year stretch of frustration in stock car racing's biggest event.
A multi-car crash with seven laps remaining stacked the field for a short burst to the finish. Earnhardt Jr. led Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon at the final green flag. Earnhardt Jr. led the white-flag lap and was in front on the final lap when a huge wreck produced a closing caution, freezing the field and giving the No. 88 Chevrolet the win.
The race ended nearly nine hours after it began. It was red-flagged for more than six hours for rain and severe weather, including a tornado warning.
It is Earnhardt Jr.'s second victory in the 500. He also won in 2004. He had not won a Sprint Cup race since June 2012, a stretch of 57 races.
"I'll never take this for granted man," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We're in the Chase. We don't have to worry about that!"
Under NASCAR's new format, the top 15 winningest drivers plus the points leader automatically qualifying for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The wreck with seven laps to go appeared to start with contact between Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman. Newman's car slid in front of several others, sending several cars spinning.
With more wet weather threatening from the west and several drivers facing fuel-mileage issues, the field took the green flag on lap 169 with Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson up front.
Earnhardt Jr., at the front of a strong draft that included Johnson, Kevin Harvick and surprising Reed Sorenson, roared past Edwards to take the lead on lap 183.
A few seconds later, the fifth caution flag appeared when Trevor Bayne, also racing in the front group, lost control of his Ford and ran into the outside wall.
Only 15 laps after a 13-car crash had eliminated several drivers, including Danica Patrick and Michael Waltrip, another major accident heavily damaged several other cars.
On lap 161, pole winner Austin Dillon bumped Kyle Larson, sending Larson sliding and into traffic entering turn four. Also involved were Marcos Ambrose, Michael Annett, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers.
The 10-car wreck produced the race's fourth caution flag.
A late multi-car wreck set up a shootout finish for the Daytona 500 on Sunday night.
Ryan Newman got turned by Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon -- who also triggered an earlier wreck -- and several other cars piled in.
The damaged cars included both of Swan Racing's machines -- driven by rookies Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt -- along with Brian Scott, Justin Allgaier and veteran Terry Labonte, who has said this will be his last Daytona 500.?
The cleanup from the wreck left only a few laps left to decide the winner.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leading. He has finished second in three of the past four Daytona 500s.
PATRICK OUT OF 500
A brutal 13-car crash involving Danica Patrick, Michael Waltrip and several other drivers occurred on lap 146.
The crash began in turn four when the cars of Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott made contact in the middle of a huge pack. The bump pushed Scott into Aric Almirola's Ford, which sliced across the middle of the track and hit Patrick's Chevrolet.
Patrick lost control and slammed hard into the outside wall as sliding cars spun down the frontstretch and onto the wet grass adjacent to the racing surface.
The crash resulted in the race's third caution, the first since the event resumed after a six-hour rain delay.
Others involved in the wreck were Parker Kligerman, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, David Gilliland, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Justin Allgaier, Josh Wise, Michael Waltrip.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. held the lead at the time of the accident as the race approached its three-quarter mark.
At lap 150
The Hendrick Motorsports entries of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Roush Fenway Racing Fords of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle flexed their muscles just past the halfway point of the Daytona 500 and put themselves in position to win NASCAR's biggest race.
Meanwhile, another Hendrick driver, Kasey Kahne, found big trouble. He and Michael Annett dropped off the track on lap 115 to enter pit road. Annett lost control of his car and slid as he left the racing surface. Kahne increased his speed to avoid Annett's sliding car and was subsequently penalized by NASCAR for speeding on pit road.
Kahne was upset by the penalty and expressed his disappointment on the team's radio.
Also running into problems past the halfway point were Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart.
Bowyer parked his car on lap 128 with an apparent blown engine. Stewart experienced fuel-pickup problems earlier in the race before pitting on lap 125 so that his team could check the Chevrolet. He returned to the track after 13 laps but soon thereafter went to the garage area for a fuel-cell change.
At lap 150, Biffle, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards and Johnson were first-through-fourth.
On lap 146, 13 drivers were involved in a massive wreck in the fourth turn.
At lap 100
Paul Menard is out front after two leading drivers had issues on pit road.
With 100 laps in the record books, the rain-delayed 500, scheduled for 200 laps, now is official if wet weather returns to stop the race.
Kahne pitted for a four-tire change on lap 71 but lost control as he left pit road to return to the track. He spun onto wet grass adjacent to the racing surface before correcting the car and returning to the race. Kahne fell to 40th place.
A few minutes later, Busch left his pit with a tire changer's air gun still attached to a wheel, costing him a stop-and-go penalty and dropping him to 41st place.
On lap 84, Aric Almirola was penalized for pulled a jack from his pit stall during a stop.
Tony Stewart, returning to the series after missing several months last year with a broken leg, began experiencing engine issues near the race's halfway point and sits in 30th place.
Following Menard in the top five are defending champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.
At lap 50
Denny Hamlin, one of the pre-race favorites, took the lead from Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
Also in the top five were Kahne, Keselowski and Brian Vickers.
Martin Truex Jr. was the lone driver out of the race after blowing an engine on lap 31.
After a rain delay of more than six hours, the Daytona 500, battered by weather for much of Sunday, restarted at 8:36 p.m. ET.
The 56th annual Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway was stopped after 38 laps because of severe weather shortly after 2 p.m.
The event was restarted under the caution flag after a red flag that was in effect for 6 hours, 21 minutes, 41 seconds. Forecasters predicted improved weather for the rest of the evening.
Kyle Busch, who was leading when the race was halted shortly after 2 p.m., led a field of 42 drivers to green alongside Kasey Kahne in the front row.
First 38 laps
Busch led the race as the caution flag flew on lap 38, followed by Kahne, Hamlin, Vickers and Menard.
Rookie Kyle Larson, who had popped the outside wall earlier, spun off the track to the inside on lap 23, causing the first caution. During the caution period, Matt Kenseth spun while trying to enter his pit and wound up backward in the stall, where the team serviced the car as it normally does.
The pit sequence also saw Marcos Ambrose and Danica Patrick making slight contact as Ambrose left his pit and Patrick arrived in hers.
The second caution flag appeared when Truex's engine blew on lap 31, making him the first driver out and guaranteeing a last-place finish. Early reports indicated the oil pump was loose and knocked the belt off. Light rain began falling during the caution.
Truex, who was making his debut with Furniture Row Racing, lamented on Twitter that it was too bad they "can't just put a new engine in."
Truex was the race's second-place qualifier but had to start in the back of the field after wrecking in a qualifying race Thursday night.
Hamlin, one of the pre-race favorites, found some early-race trouble as a piece of debris caught on his grille. He dropped out of the lead to pick up some air from other cars and sweep the paper off the grill.
Pole winner Austin Dillon, returning the car number 3 to Sprint Cup racing, led the first lap with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth following.
NASCAR parked the cars on pit road under the red flag. DIS evacuated the grandstand under the threat of severe weather. The track flashed weather warnings to fans and alerted them to take cover. Anyone with campers was warned to secure awnings and all outdoor items.
Planes continued to take off and land at Daytona Beach International Airport located beside the track.
Meteorologist Brian Neudorff told USA TODAY Sports he was "very concerned" about the threat of severe weather. A tornado warning for just north of the track was in effect at 4 p.m.
The safety of Sprint Cup fans during inclement weather came under scrutiny when a fan was killed by a lighting strike after the Aug. 5, 2012 race at Pocono Raceway.
A severe weather warning was issued at 4:12 p.m., and the track said it made announcements about the storm. But the grandstands weren't evacuated before NASCAR stopped the race at 4:54 p.m. The fatal strike occurred at 5:01 p.m. in a parking lot behind the grandstands, and nine more were transported to hospitals after being injured by other lightning strikes.
The race started under cloudy skies and forecasts called for a 60% chance of showers and thunderstorms.
But less than an hour into the race, heavy rains began moving in on the track, soaking pit road, the garage area and the more than 150,000 fans in attendance.
The Air Titan, which made its debut last season, was available to help dry the track.
The system works with two sets of identical equipment on opposite sides of the track that move in the same direction for one complete pass. The diesel-powered system uses air compression to move water down and off the track.
In 2012, the Daytona 500 was run on Monday for the first time in its history after rain washed it out Sunday. Once it got started, things still weren't smooth sailing, however. Juan Pablo Montoya, who left NASCAR this year and returned to open-wheel racing in IndyCar, ran into a jet dryer on the track, causing a huge fireball.
Safety workers had to use Tide -- yes, that Tide -- to help clean the track surface as fans waited through another two-hour delay.Last year, O'Donnell said jet dryers still would be used to blow debris off the track, though there is hope the Air Titan eventually will be used for the same purpose.
In 2009, Kenseth won the first of his two Daytona 500 crowns when rain shortened the race.
In 2010, a pothole on the track delayed the race for just over two hours as workers tried to fill it in and resmooth the surface.
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