NASCAR could not have had a better start to the 2014 season.
Well, it could have. If the Daytona 500 had been stopped prematurely because of rain, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won, the conspiracy theorists would have been up all night. They might never sleep again. I don’t like conspiracy theorists.
Brian France, NASCAR’s CEO and Chairman, told me in an interview Thursday that if he had a secret Dale Jr. lever that would have enabled Earnhardt to win he would have pulled it long ago. He was JOKING.
I never asked if he had a rain lever.
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Rain wasn’t required. Earnhardt won the Daytona 500, which he also won 10 years ago, all by himself, himself and his team. With late pushes from teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt clung to the front and won the thrilling, thrilling, and bizarre, bizarre, race.
Why bizarre? Rain had been forecast Sunday and, a little more than an hour in, it came. It was bully rain, mean rain. It would let up. Yeah, fellows, drive your state of the art Air Titan track-drying machines all you want. And then it would drench Daytona International Speedway yet again.
The weather was as angry as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim at the end of Duke’s victory against the Orange.
Giant weather blobs – dislike giant weather blobs – would show up on radar, floating toward the track, multi-colored. The National Weather Service even issued a tornado watch.
It was Seattle, minus the ferns and the Coho salmon. There are three Denny’s restaurants in Daytona Beach, however, and they all serve salmon with two sides and dinner bread.
After a six-hour, 21-minute, 40-second delay, the race resumed. Suddenly, seats were occupied. Fans had been lurking on the concourses and they came out strong. They deserved a good race, and they got one.
Who was leading? It doesn’t matter who was leading. What matters is avoiding the inevitable wrecks.
There were four of them, the first on 144 of the 200 laps, and it collected 13 drivers. The next, 19 laps later, collected eight. The wrecks kept coming.
And Earnhardt kept avoiding them.
The cool air and the gripping tires lent themselves to speed and daring, and the drivers dared. In front or close were Earnhardt and Johnson and Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
The talent was evident as they moved two and three wide around the track. There are always going to be mysteries in the draft, but these guys drove as if they had solved them.
After a final caution, the Daytona 500 became the Daytona 7 1/2. They ran three laps for the championship.
Hamlin, so dominant all week, made a final run on Earnhardt, taking off as if propelled. But Earnhardt held him off.
The infield was full of wrecked cars, with multiple tire marks cutting into the big white DAYTONA letters in the middle of the infield.
The almost-24 Hours at Daytona ended with by far the sport’s most popular driver winning what it is by far the sport’s biggest race.
Earnhardt, who in eight months will turn 40, slowly drove slowly around the track, waving at fans as if he knew them.
They waved back. They know him.