By Jenna Fryer/The Associated Press
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.