DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ten years had passed since Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, in 2004. He won six races that season.
Seems like a career ago, doesn’t it?
Earnhardt had victories in a mere four races at NASCAR’s top level in the nine years that followed, none at Daytona. But for a night, at least, it was the old Earnhardt again. With the lights on at Daytona International Speedway after a rain delay of more than six hours, Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 for the second time — 13 years after his legendary father’s death in the same race.
Earnhardt, 39, had finished second in three of the past four Daytona 500s. He took the lead on Lap 131 for the first time and held off challenges from Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.
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Hamlin was second and Keselowski was third.
Biffle, who is from Vancouver, Wash., finished eighth and Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw was 31st of 43.
In victory lane, Earnhardt said, “Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again, and it feels just as good. This is amazing.”
It was Earnhardt’s first victory since 2012, when he won at Michigan — his only victory in the past five seasons — and it virtually assures NASCAR’s most popular driver will qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship under the new points system instituted for this season.
Earnhardt, in the No. 88 Chevrolet, recaptured the lead on Lap 183 and stayed in front despite some late restarts. He led for a race-high 54 laps.
A rain delay after 38 laps lasted 6 hours, 22 minutes, but Fox Sports made sure fans watching on television remained entertained for much of Sunday. The network ran a replay of last year’s race during the long delay — and did not immediately run a disclaimer informing fans it was not live. Many fans were fooled, though Fox later ran a crawl on the bottom of the screen noting it was a replay.
Among those who apparently got it wrong: Fox News and ESPN.com’s sister website espnW.com. Fox News reported on Twitter that Johnson had won the race — he was last year’s winner — and espnW.com turned to Twitter to congratulate Danica Patrick on her eighth-place finish. Patrick was 40th this year.
Johnson apparently received so many congratulations Sunday he responded on Twitter as well:
“I hear I won the #Daytona500? Haha! I also have friends confused and texting congratulations to me. #2013Replay.”
Johnson was a contender as expected, finishing fifth.