Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Dale Earnhardt Jr. again.
A multicar wreck erupted as Earnhardt charged to the checkered flag while holding off Denny Hamlin to secure his victory in Sunday night’s rain-delayed Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
The victory is Earnhardt’s second in the Great American Race and his first win on a superspeedway – the tracks on which he once dominated – since the 2004 season.
As an added bonus, thanks to changes made to NASCAR’s championship system during the offseason, Earnhardt now is all but guaranteed a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup.
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Brad Keselowski finished third, Jeff Gordon was fourth and Jimmie Johnson fifth.
“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know if I would ever get to feel that again, but it feels just as good. It’s better than the first because of how hard we tried year after year running second.”
Earnhardt won the 2004 Daytona 500, the last of his six superspeedway victories from 2001 to 2004. He finished second in the 500 in 2010, 2012 and again last year.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted, man, because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
Sunday’s victory was his 20th in the series and his first since June 2012 at Michigan International Speedway.
Under threatening skies, the race got off as scheduled with pole-winner Austin Dillon leading the first lap before Hamlin took over.
Hamlin, however, got some debris stuck on his front grille and was forced to pull out of line to lower his engine temperature. That allowed Kurt Busch to move into the lead.
Kyle Larson slapped the wall hard and brought out the race’s first caution on Lap 23 of 200. During pit stops, Matt Kenseth spun on pit road after contact with Trevor Bayne and Danica Patrick and was forced to pit in an awkward position after trying to avoid contact from Marcos Ambrose.
The race restarted on Lap 27 with Paul Menard in the lead, followed by Kurt Busch.
The engine on Martin Truex Jr.’s car expired to bring out a caution on Lap 32. Truex was forced to the garage and out of the race. During the caution, it began to rain, and NASCAR displayed the red flag at 2:12 p.m., after the completion of 38 laps.
After several storms, including two tornado warnings, the race restarted at 8:53 p.m. – almost 6 1/2 hours later.
The race returned to green flag conditions on Lap 47, with Kyle Busch in the lead followed by Kasey Kahne and Hamlin.
During green-flag pit stops, Kahne spun on the exit to pit road and fell a lap down. Kyle Busch also lost a lap when he was penalized for removing equipment from pit road.
Once green-flag stops were completed, Menard led the way on Lap 90 followed by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
After 100 of 200 laps, Menard continued to lead followed by Johnson and Earnhardt.
On Lap 103, Tony Stewart brought his No. 14 Chevrolet to pit road for the first of several trips for a problem with his fuel cell.
Shortly after another round of green-flag stops, Harvick nipped Brian Scott, who then hit Aric Almirola, which ignited a 13-car wreck on Lap 145.
On the restart on Lap 154, Greg Biffle took over the lead, followed by Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Johnson and Kenseth.
Over the next four laps, Earnhardt and Biffle traded the lead three times, with Earnhardt getting around Biffle on Lap 155 to take the lead for the second time in the race.
Dillon made contact with Larson in Turn 4 on Lap 162 to bring out the fourth caution. This incident collected 10 cars.
On the restart on Lap 169, Earnhardt maintained the lead followed by Biffle, Edwards, Johnson and Kenseth.
With 20 laps to go, Edwards moved out to the lead with Kenseth, Earnhardt, Biffle and Gordon close behind.
Bayne wrecked on Lap 184 to bring out the fifth caution. On the restart on Lap 188, Earnhardt led the way, followed by Johnson, Harvick, Reed Sorenson and Keselowski.
Dillon made contact with Ryan Newman on Lap 195 to bring out the sixth caution. On the restart on Lap 199, Earnhardt held the lead followed by Keselowski, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Edwards.
“This race was car was awesome,” Earnhardt said. “We showed all night long how good a car we had, and it’s these guys right here who put it together in the shop.
“We were fighting off battles after battles. We got a little hookup from Jeff (Gordon) on the last restart and just took care of it from there.”