DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It figures that Matt Kenseth rose from the ashes to win the fiery Daytona 500 in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
A calm, collected adult needed to stand up and stop the shenanigans that plagued the 54th running of the Great American Race. Fire and rain, drivers losing control of their cars, sleep-deprived fans — and a few media types — trying to make it home before Easter.
Fittingly, Kenseth won his second Daytona title by holding off a late charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s favorite son, and a subdued challenge from teammate Greg Biffle.
Kenseth took a lot of grief back in 2003 when he won the last Winston Cup title under quirky circumstances. He won only one race but had 25 Top 10 finishes. By contrast, Ryan Newman won eight races.
Many feel that led to the implementation of the Chase playoff format. I remember writing that it was an attempt to stop the “monotonous drone” of the NASCAR season, something that didn’t sit well with then-NASCAR guru, the late Bill France Jr.
There was no monotonous drone about what was happening Monday/Tuesday, following the disappointing washout on Sunday that postponed everything to the next day.
“A crazy strange,” is how Carl Edwards described it, reflecting on the two-hour delay after Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer under caution to send the track up in flames.
Kenseth won a rain-shortened race in 2009. Now he wins one etched in fire.
“Yeah, it’s nice to go the whole distance and survive a green¿white-checkered, too, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen in speed races,” Kenseth said.
Daytona is always a crazy animal, but the zoo went slightly more berserk Monday night.
Elliott Sadler managed to take out Jimmie Johnson, Trevor Bayne and Danica Patrick by getting overly aggressive on the second lap of a 200-lap race. That’s a lot of star power in one boneheaded move.
Then Jeff Gordon’s engine blew.
Who/what was next?
Montoya answered that question.
“I have hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer? I mean, no,” said Montoya, who blamed the problem on a weird vibration he felt in the back of the car. “Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer,” he said.
Finally, Kenseth led the charge back to normalcy. Sort of. Because of the quirky schedule and the need to get to Phoenix ASAP for this Sunday’s race, Kenseth didn’t get to partake of the traditional champion’s breakfast with the media at Daytona International Speedway Tuesday morning.
“Well, I don’t mind doing it, but yeah, that doesn’t bother me too much,” Kenseth said before joking during the late-night presser. “I think they’re going to start serving eggs in a half hour.”
Rain check, please.
Time for everybody to go home.
Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood used to get shot out of a cannon as part of his family’s travelling show back in his younger days.
But nothing could prepare him for the wild ride that ensued Monday night when he saw his track on fire.
“I would say at some point in the towers while we were dealing with the incident I thought that it’s probably safer risking my life as a stuntman than being the president of the Daytona International Speedway,” Chitwood said. “There’s been a lot of activity here the last couple years. We’ve had our ups and downs. But at the end of the day, tonight validates what we do. We train, we prepare. This is the World Center of Racing, and I’ll be honest: If we would have talked about having 200 gallons of burning jet fuel on the racetrack during the event, I’m not sure what the likelihood would have been of completing the race or having a surface that could have been used to race.
“I am really proud of my team and how they responded, and we finished the Daytona 500 the right way, which is under green, and a lot of fans in the stands cheering it on.”
Challenging circumstances doesn’t begin to describe the obstacles that Chitwood and his staff faced. But he is right, through fire and rain, they hung tough, and delivered a great show.
And of course, there was the piece de resistance: workers using Tide laundry detergent to wash the track.
“It was amazing that NASCAR was able to have enough Tide and have enough oil dry and had people trained and were able to really save the racetrack,” winning owner Jack Roush said. “I thought surely that the racetrack would be damaged to the point that it wouldn’t be suitable for continuing the race.”
TV ratings strong
FOX viewers hung tough late Monday night despite the delay that stretched two hours, five minutes, 29 seconds.
The race drew an overnight rating of 7.7 compared to 8.2 last season (on a Sunday afternoon) and 7.0 in 2010 when the race was plagued by another long delay because of a pothole on the track.
More impressively, FOX averaged 14.24 million total viewers and a 4.5 demo rating _ more than doubling its usual House/Alcatraz numbers during Monday night programming.
The online boost was impressive: NASCAR.COM’s coverage set a single-day record for the most unique users, 2.3 million. In addition, total page views were at 11.8 million, up 5 percent from last year, and video streams hit 561,000, up 96 percent from the 2011 Daytona 500.
Roush gets No. 300
A benchmark that shouldn’t get lost in the moment is that Roush Fenway Racing notched its 300th victory Monday night.
“This is a special night,” co-owner Roush said. “It feels great.
“But for Matt to have the success or Greg (Biffle) to have had the success of bringing a 300th win would have been fitting, but tonight Matt had the best car, and of course Greg was unselfish and worked with him, and they pulled it off together.”