The Daytona 500 that no one will ever forget ran finally after a 30 hour rain delay. In a race that had never before in 54 years been postponed by rain, the green flag flew on a Monday for the first time in history proving that Mother Nature really is not a fan of Motorsports. A race that was destined to break new ground by including the first woman driver in the history of the race. A race that many were worried would never start in the first place. A race that once it finally did start, the fans were wondering if it was ever going to finish. The fans had returned to the coliseum in record numbers to watch the long awaited starting race for the 2012 season and they weathered storms, rain delays, and even a firey crash and a 2 hour red flag clean up, and they stayed into the wee hours of Tuesday morning to see it through to completion.
The carnage started early when Jimmie Johnson got loose on lap 2, thanks to a love tap from Elliot Sadler, which sent him nose first into the wall in turn 2, collecting the 21 of Trevor Bayne, the 10 of Danica Patrick, the 51 of Kurt Busch, and the 34 of David Ragan, bringing out the first of 12 caution flags to wave over the Great American Race.
On Lap 13 Ryan Newman got loose all by himself on the back stretch after blowing out his right rear tire, spinning towards the inside wall but regained control and was able to keep it off the wall, and most importantly, on the lead lap.
Once everyone got the jitters out of their systems the race settled down and the fan were treated to a return of the pack racing of old. No more 2 car dances going on all over the track, this is what the fans came to see. An old school pack race, with 43 cars all trying to out manouver each other, chasing the glory and even a mid race bonus of $200000. Martin Truex Jr scored the midway prize .
Between lap 65 and 70 some of the cars from the lap 2 crash began to return to the track. Trevor Bayne brought his battered #21 Wood Brothers From back to the stage as did Danica Patrick, both prepared to run with the pack and keep the DNF column clear. Why would they return more than 60 laps down you ask?
“Every lap that I turn is a progression, that’s for sure,” Patrick said on pit road after the race. “That’s why I was so proud of everyone working so hard — and they were working hard — to get me back on the track. There wasn’t much to gain, as far as position-wise, but what there was to gain was for me to get the experience of running out there.”
“I’ve got to get further up the grid [because] the further you are up front, the less things happen,” Patrick said of her three days of wrecks. “Every time the accident happened I was further back in the field. The further up front you are the better off you are — but then again, you need that experience to get further up front, which is what I’m trying to get.”
“So I’m sure this is not new territory for a new driver, I just wish it could have gone better for everybody that was so excited — especially the fans. It was great to see them cheering all the way around the track, even when we were parked on the back straight [under a red flag with 40 laps to go]. But it would have been nice to have a solid finish.”
The on track action continued in the second half and it was just as unpredictable and crazy as the first half, if not even more so.
Jeff Gordon blew his engine in a flaming and spectacular fashion, pulling out of line and waving the other drivers by just before a complete catastrophic failure, flames billowing out either side of the engine from the fuel and oil spraying on the engine block, as Gordon managed to get the car off the track without further incident.
Lead changes were not happening as we had seen in pack racing of old. The outside line just did not seem to be able to catch the leaders. Running about 5 or 6 cars back the lead car on the outside line just never seemed to be able to make up the distance to challenge the front pack of 5 or 6 cars. The exception to this rule was Denny Hamlin being pushed by Jeff Burton, and it only happened once.
Then came the fireworks. On lap 160 Juan Pablo Montoya was returning to the track after a pit stop to try to correct a vibration he was feeling in the car. As he brought the #42 Target car up to speed to catch the pack which was running under caution, something broke in the rear end of the car and it slid towards the outside wall. Unfortunately the jet dryers which were removing the moisture from the track which had brought out the caution flag, were on the track and between Montoya and the wall. Slamming into the Jet Dryer at 150 mph the ensuing explosion was incredible to say the least. Montoya’s car exploded first, throwing car parts everywhere on the track and causing Montoya to come to rest on the infield grass, his car reduced to nothing more than a shell, as he walked away from it unharmed. The Jet dryer however did not get off as lightly. The driver of the jet dryer was helped from his truck and away from the flaming wreck as 200 gallons of Jet fuel, used to fuel the Helicopter Turbine engine, poured down the race track and ignited. The fire crews were on hand immediately and kept the fire from getting out of hand, putting it out as soon as the jet fuel burned away.
“I wasn’t even going that fast,” Montoya recalled. “It just felt really strange, as I was talking on the radio the car just turned right . . .I have hit a lot of things. But a jet dryer? No.”
Duane Barnes, the jet dryer truck driver, was pretty shaken up, but he did get to share an ambulance ride with Juan Pablo Montoya himself.
“He was pretty scared,” Montoya said. “ . . . I am sure he is pretty shaken and is going to be sore to his person, but I think he is OK.”
The came the final 40 laps, and 3 more caution flags. As is usually the case at Daytona, as the laps wear down, so does the patience of everyone in the race. Making moves to get to the front can put you or the car next to you into the wall, fast.
The real show however was out front. Dale Earnhardt Jr Pushing Greg Biffle and both of them were chasing Matt Kenseth. On the final restart Kenseth got out front of the tandem pair behind him and stayed there. Everyone was waiting for a move to be made, for the 2 cars to blow by the single after they hooked up, but it never came. In turn 4 for the final time Dale Jr made his move on Greg Biffle and got by him but just did not have enough steam to catch the 17 car of Matt Keseth, Leaving Earnhardt to settle for 2nd.
“Even on them restarts when Dale Jr. tried to push me, I tried to give him air and stay with him, but our car just ran so good, he couldn’t quite keep up and stay attached to us,” Kenseth said. “So I had to make other moves to keep the momentum up. I think when you come to plate racing, a huge, huge percentage of it is the car and how fast the car is. But I think Thursday was really good for us, because we learned some things in them last few laps that I think probably helped a little bit [Monday].”
Greg Biffle had the catbird seat witting in second, where every other race over the weekend was won from, but he could not capitalize on the opportunity.
“Once we got straight, I pushed the gas down, I thought that we’d drive up on the back of the No. 17 without a problem,” Biffle said. “It must have just pushed enough air out in front of my car that it pushed the No. 17 car out about five, six feet in front of me, and I couldn’t get any closer. I thought, well, I need to get out from behind him because then we’ll be able to go by him. So on the back stretch I moved up a little bit, and Matt is not stupid. We had no run at him. We were all going the same speed.”
“Then we could have moved up beside him coming off the corner, and then Junior and I would have had to dice it out to the line,” he said. “That’s probably what I should have done, is just anchored down the brakes down the backstretch and put distance in between us. [That's] the only way we probably would have got a run at him. But I thought for sure I didn’t need to do that. Of course, Monday morning quarterback, I’d do it now, but I didn’t think I needed to. I thought [Earnhardt would] shove me right up to his back bumper. He had all night. I had no doubt it would happen then.”
So how did Earnhardt Jr feel after all was said and done?
“I’m very happy,” he said. “I’m really in a good place. I’m not frustrated at all, I promise. I’m in a great mood. I run second here a lot, though, so I know I don’t feel it right now, but I know later [Tuesday] and [Wednesday] and the rest of the week it’s going to eat at me what I could have done to win the race. So that is kind of frustrating.”
Crazy things continue. Under caution while gaining on the pack Juan Montoya in teh 42 car slammed into a jet dryer after something broke in his car. REd Flag on lap 160. 2 hr delay