DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Matt Kenseth, winless a year ago, added the biggest jewel in NASCAR to his trophy collection Sunday, winning a dramatic, rain-shortened Daytona 500 before a capacity crowd of some 200,000 at Daytona International Speedway, plus a Fox national television audience.
Photo: CIA Stock Photo
Kenseth somehow dodged a huge pileup shortly after lap 125 that easily could have sent him to the scrap-pile like it did young sensation Kyle Busch.
Busch, who had led 88 laps to clearly establish himself as the race favorite, was a victim in a 10-car wreck that had cars sliding through the backstretch infield apron and down the end of the backstretch straightaway in a huge cloud of smoke and debris.
The accident was triggered when Brian Vickers moved over to block Dale Earnhardt, Jr. near the end of the backstretch. Earnhardt was forced off the track onto the apron and into the grass. When Earnhardt tried to steer his sliding car back on the track, he clipped the rear end of Vickers’ Toyota, sending Vickers shooting across the track directly in front of the oncoming field of 200-mph stock cars. At that point, it was pure havoc. No one was injured, but the accident sent a number of cars to the junk heap.
Besides Busch, who finished 41st, others involved included Carl Edwards (18th), Kurt Busch (10th), Vickers (39th), Earnhardt (27th), Jamie McMurray (37th), Jimmie Johnson (31st), Robby Gordon (34th), and Denny Hamlin (26th).
Kenseth started the race from 39th position after his crew had to change an engine in his Jack Roush Ford sponsored by DeWalt.
Ironically, the runner-up in the abbreviated race — 152 out of a scheduled 200 laps were completed — and winner of the Daytona 500 two years ago, Kevin Harvick, also started in the rear of the field due to engine problems.
Third-place finisher AJ Allmindinger had a storybook finish since he just hooked up with the Valvoline Dodge team several weeks ago. His performance Sunday should help him find additional sponsorship.
Clint Bowyer finished fourth, Elliott Sadler fifth, David Ragan sixth, former Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip seventh, Tony Stewart eighth, and Reed Sorensen ninth. Truex was 11th.
It was a cool, overcast afternoon when the 51st running of this classic got underway. Drivers mashed the gas to the floor right from the git-go and three different drivers led the first three laps, Truex, Martin and “wild thing” Busch, who took over on the third lap and was leading when Almirola spun by himself on the eighth circuit.
When racing resumed, Busch remained out front with Martin, Labonte, Earnhardt and Edwards right behind.
A mandatory caution at lap 26 allowed the teams to check their tire wear after rain washed the rubber off the track Saturday night and Sunday morning. NASCAR officials informed the teams at the start of the race of the mandatory caution.
Once all the teams had pitted, Busch resumed his lead with Earnhardt on his bumper. Gordon was third, Hamlin fourth and Martin fifth.
Jeremy Mayfield, who started his own team about a month ago and was one of the feelgood stories in making the race, had his luck change at lap 33 when a problem cropped up with his motor.
At 40 laps, Busch had Kenseth on his bumper, who had started from the rear after changing motors. Ragan had moved to third, Earnhardt was fourth, Hamlin fifth and Ragan sixth.
Robbie Gordon dropped from the middle of the pack to 42nd when a punctured tire prompted an unscheduled pit stop.
At 50 laps, Busch still led and looked as though he clearly had the fastest car in the field but Earnhardt and Stewart were just a car length behind. Earnhardt and Stewart, however, blew past Busch on lap 53. One lap later, Busch pushed Stewart past Earnhardt. On the next lap, Travis Kvapil smacked the wall, bringing out the afternoon’s second caution.
When the green flag fell again, it was Stewart out front with Gordon second. Busch was third. Also running in the front pack was McMurray, Hamlin, Edwards, Martin, Kenseth, Vickers, Ragan and Kurt Busch, who finished second in this race last year.
Earnhardt, who completely missed his pit stall and had to go around the track again, was way back in 35th on the restart.
By lap 70, Gordon led, followed by Busch, Hamlin, McMurray, Kenseth, Edwards, Vickers, Stewart, who was shuffled backwards by one of the famous Daytona drafts, Martin and Allmindinger.
Stewart’s teammate and defending champion of the Daytona 500, spent considerable time in the pits and lost several laps, which pretty much ended his chance for winning “The Great American Race” again.
On lap 81, rookie Joey Logano, running back in the field to gain some experience, was in the wrong place at the right time. Another rookie, former Formula One driver Scott Speed, got loose coming out of four and had to ease off the throttle. Logano, right behind him, had to make a jerky turn left to stay off Speed and spun across the track. He smashed into the inside retaining wall almost head-on, tearing his Home Depot machine to smithereens. Logano was not injured.
On the restart at lap 85, it was Busch again and Hamlin moved into second. Allmindinger was third with Truex fourth. Gordon held on in fifth, followed by Edwards, Kenseth, Stewart, Ragan, McMurray and Burton.
The best race drivers in the world were mixing it up as though it was the last lap, rather than halfway. Gordon went from fifth to second with a nifty slingshot move down the backstretch, which resulted in Truex getting shoved back to 20th spot. Once Gordon made his move, others tucked in on his bumper and formed a freight train back to where Truex wound up.
The competition in the first half of this event was similar to what fans had seen in the Twin Gatorade 150 Qualifying Races last Thursday.