DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was rain, fire, soap suds and fog in the most bizarre Daytona 500 in history.
When it was all over, Matt Kenseth was the only sure thing.
It wasn’t even close.
Kenseth capped a crazy 36 hours for NASCAR by winning the first postponed Daytona 500 in 55 editions of the marquee event. He held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle over a two-lap overtime finish in a race that was scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon but ended in the early morning hours Tuesday.
Rain at Daytona International Speedway first forced NASCAR to push the race to Monday afternoon, then Monday night for the first-ever 500 in primetime television. Then a freak accident caused a massive fuel fire that stopped the race for two hours as safety workers used Tide laundry detergent to clean up the track.
When the racing finally resumed, it was obvious it was Kenseth’s to lose as nobody had anything to challenge his Ford.
Journeyman driver Dave Blaney was leading when a problem with Juan Pablo Montoya’s car sent him spinning under caution into a safety truck.
The truck, which holds 200 gallons of jet kerosene, burst into flames. Montoya’s car slid into the grass, and he gingerly climbed from it as fire trucks rushed to the scene. The inferno raged on, and NASCAR red-flagged the race with 40 laps remaining.
The race was delayed 2 hours, 5 minutes and 29 seconds while track workers scrambled to fix the track.
“About the time you think you’ve seen about everything, you see something like this,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
NASCAR officials examined the track surface and determined the race could continue. Blaney’s lead was short-lived, however, as he had to pit for gas.
Jet fuel poured down the surface of Turn 3 at Daytona International Speedway after the accident, creating a fiery lasting image of NASCAR’s biggest race of the year. The clean-up crews were using boxes of Tide laundry detergent to clean up the fuel.
It was par for the course for this Daytona 500.
It took several minutes for safety workers to put out the fire, and then came the task of removing the truck from the track and cleaning up all that spilled fuel. Towing the truck from the steep banking presented a challenge, as NASCAR was nervous any movement would dig into the track surface.
Montoya, who said his helmet was singed in the fire and his foot ached, said he felt a vibration in his car before the accident.
“I’ve hit a lot of things — but a jet dryer?” he said. “It just felt really strange, and as I was talking on the radio, the car just turned right.”
The drivers were allowed to exit their cars after about 10 minutes under the red flag. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been complaining he had to go to the bathroom, and Brad Keselowski was posting to his Twitter account from inside his car.
The racing was aggressive at the drop of the green flag, and the first accident occurred on just the second lap, when Elliott Sadler ran into the back of Jimmie Johnson as they drafted around the track.
The contact sent Johnson into the wall, and as the five-time NASCAR champion slid back down across the track, he was hit hard in the door by David Ragan. The accident collected six cars total, including defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Patrick.
“I’m just really, really bummed to start the season this way,” Johnson said. “To work as hard as everyone did at Hendrick Motorsports to get this Lowe’s Chevrolet and to have it barely complete two-and-a-half miles of green flag racing is pretty sad. We’ll just go on and go to Phoenix and set our marks on winning that race.”
He may go to Phoenix without any points: NASCAR is expected to penalize crew chief Chad Knaus this week for failing the first inspection of SpeedWeeks. Knaus could be facing both a suspension and a loss of a points.
It took about an hour for Patrick’s Stewart-Haas Racing crew to get her back on the track, and she returned 62 laps behind the leader.
The race settled down after that, and the push for the $200,000 leader bonus at the halfway mark didn’t spark too much excitement. Two-time NASCAR champion Terry Labonte had been running second and presumably in position to make a move for the cash, but he was spun by Marcos Ambrose.
“Awe, man! Who would turn the Ice Man around?” Earnhardt shouted on his team radio.
After a brief caution, the leaders had a 10-lap sprint to the halfway point, and Martin Truex Jr. used a big push from Denny Hamlin to slide by Greg Biffle on the deciding lap. Although he was told over his team radio to “go get the other half,” history didn’t bode well for Truex: the last leader at the halfway point to win the Daytona 500 was Davey Allison in 1992.
GIANT VISITORS: New York Giants defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were on hand for The Great American Race. The Super Bowl champions were introduced at the pre-race drivers’ meeting, and the most significant part of their appearance was Tuck’s left shoulder.
Tuck’s arm was in a sling, evidence of his recent shoulder surgery.
Coach Tom Coughlin revealed the surgery Friday at the NFL Combine.
Tuck battled through a number of injuries during the regular season and missed four games. He was held out of a practice prior to New York’s NFC wild-card round game against the Atlanta Falcons because of his ailing shoulder.
WAKE-UP CALL: Lenny Kravitz wasn’t quite ready for his midday concert.
Kravitz preformed the pre-race event and strolled into Daytona International Speedway wearing dark shades and moving somewhat slowly.
“Once I wake up, we should be OK,” he said.
The seven-time Grammy Award winner eventually got things rolling and played some fan favorites in the rain, including “American Woman” and “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”
He joked about how different his lifestyle is from the normal.
“It’s oddball every night,” he said. “Nothing normal about this life.”
Much different from NASCAR?
“You guys go fast; we play loud,” he said.
KESELOWSKI TWEETS DURING DELAY: A bizarre delay in the Daytona 500 produced another unique moment in NASCAR: Driver Brad Keselowski posted messages on his Twitter account while he waited in his car for the race to resume.
Then he got caught in a late-race crash — and tweeted again about a minute after the accident.
“Nothing we could do there,” he posted. “Never saw the wreck till we were windshield deep.”
Keselowski tripled his number of followers in the process, going from approximately 65,000 before the race to nearly 200,000 as the race got ready to resume after a delay of slightly more than two hours.
“Time to get back racing, thank you for following!,” Keselowski wrote.
Driver Juan Pablo Montoya’s collision with a large jet dryer vehicle touched off a huge fireball, bringing the race to a screeching halt. Montoya and the driver of the truck were OK.
NASCAR officials had the rest of the drivers stop their cars, and Keselowski took advantage of the break to post photos and answer questions from fans on his Twitter account, (at)keselowski. He apparently carries his mobile phone with him in his race car.
Asked by a fan whether other drivers were tweeting, Keselowski said no.
“They all think I’m crazy,” he wrote.
Keselowski answered other questions, including how low his phone’s battery was running (28 percent).
FOX TO NEGOTIATE WITH NASCAR: NASCAR’s current television contract runs through 2014, but Fox Sports chairman David Hill said the network will begin its negotiations on an extension this season.
“You never stop negotiating,” Hill told The Associated Press this week. “But, it will start to get hot in the next three or four months.”
Fox shares the Sprint Cup Series schedule with TNT and ESPN. The network partnered with NASCAR in 2001 on a six-year deal, and extended once, by eight years, through 2014.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said last month the series is happy with its current television partners.
“My expectation is they want to renew their involvement with NASCAR, and my hope is at the right time we’ll figure that out together,” France said. “The sports landscape in general, as you know, has heated up quite a bit, so we will be in a good position at the right time. We’re having conversations.”
Fox broadcasts 13 points races on NASCAR’s 36-race schedule.
Hill said he’ll never publicly discuss negotiations but insisted his passion for NASCAR — and auto racing in general — has not waned and the sport is good product for the network. He also pointed to last year’s improved ratings as proof Fox and NASCAR are a good fit.
“I think the whole season last year was a huge change in two things, and the most important was the young male demographic started to come back,” Hill said. “I think last year was a hugely important year for all of NASCAR, because I think we finally got over the debacle of the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow. The Car of Tomorrow was probably one of the greatest marketing mishandlings since they brought out new Coke.”
The 2011 NASCAR season on Fox averaged a three-year high of 8.6 million viewers, up 9 percent. It was the largest one-year audience increase in the 11-year history of NASCAR on Fox.
The male 18-to-34 demographic last year was up 20 percent over 2010, from 1.5 to 1.8 in the ratings.
Hill said it’s because the focus has returned to the personalities and has shifted from the cars. NASCARintroduced its current car model in 2007, and its struggles dominated many storylines.
“This sport has been built by some of the biggest and boldest and bravest personalities in the history of sport,” Hill said. “No one cares about the car. The car is second. It’s the driver, and I think that last year marketed that, and that’s why the young males came back.”
He also said Tony Stewart ending Jimmie Johnson’s five-year championship run helped spark interest.
“Last year was a huge break, and we’re almost over the hump,” Hill said. “May God bless Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus both, they are brilliant, but Tony Stewart has got the sniff of the apple. He’s exciting. He’s a bad boy, and there’s nothing better than having a black hat who is winning.”