Instant analysis: Daytona 500

February, 28, 2012

It took us a while to finally get it in, but the 54th Daytona 500 -- the first delayed by weather and the first to feature an exploding jet dryer -- was worth the wait.

Here's what happened in the just-completed Great American Wait, er, Race.

How The Race Was Won: Roush Fenway Racing went to the front, stayed at the front and locked it down, holding off a final mad dash by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to ice Matt Kenseth's second Daytona 500 victory.

Turning Point: Anyone who watched Friday and Saturday's Trucks and Nationwide races shouldn't have been surprised by Monday night's multiple green-white-wreckers finishes. Two big late crashes thinned the herd, but the final restart was a clean one, and through it all, the scene up front never really changed. Teammates Kenseth and Greg Biffle combined to lead 93 of the race's 202 laps. Earnhardt was committed to pushing Biffle around Kenseth on the final lap, but the 16 car never made a move. Said Earnhardt, who finished second: "I was waiting and waiting and waiting … nothing was happening." Biffle said there wasn't enough room to make a run and was just as surprised as Earnhardt that their two-car train couldn't reel in Kenseth.

What We Thought Was Going To Be The Turning Point: After a round of pit stops that appeared to set up a wild, full-fuel, fresh-tires shootout to the finish, Juan Pablo Montoya spun under caution and hit a jet dryer truck at speed, creating a huge jet-fuel fire that torched a race car, a truck, the outside retaining wall and the track surface. The pit-stop cycle had some odd cars at the front throughout the red-flag session and eventually the checkers. Dave Blaney of under-funded, former start-and-parker Tommy Baldwin Racing sat under the red flag and thought he might finally earn his first Cup win. But the track crews did their jobs, the rain clouds vanished and he ended up 15th.

Crazy Stat of the Night: The last time the leader at the halfway point of the race went on to win the Daytona 500 is still Davey Allison in 1992. Martin Truex Jr. received a rocket boost from Denny Hamlin to take the $200,000 bonus check for leading Lap 100 but ended up finishing 12th.

Crazy Stat of the Night, Part 2: The last time the driver leading the most laps also won the Daytona 500 was Michael Waltrip, who led 68 of the rain-shortened 109-lap race in 2003. On Monday night, Hamlin led the most laps, 57 of 202, and finished fourth.

Too Cool Replay: Fox in-car cameras showed Jimmie Johnson in the cockpit during his Lap 2 spin. Twice he leaned forward to look out the driver's side window and see what was or wasn't roaring up the frontstretch at him. Both times he was popped hard, but the wraparound head protection saved his neck. Literally.

Too Cool Replay, Part 2: When Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon felt his engine start coming apart on the backstretch, he pulled over to the right and calmly pointed out the window to let the pack behind him know it needed to blow by before causing another Big One. And he did it at 200-plus mph while his car was on fire.

Bad Day At The Office: I've been doing this a while. Never seen anything like Juan Pablo Montoya's fireball crash into the jet dryer.

Bad Day At The Office, Part 2: Elliott Sadler, in a one-off Cup ride with his Nationwide Series owner, Richard Childress, wrecked Johnson on Lap 2, was warned repeatedly by NASCAR to maintain maximum speed and spun on pit road when he missed his pit stall.

Unsung Heroes: I can't imagine the cleanup job in Turn 3 was an easy task. Those folks used everything from speedy dry to seed spreaders to fire hoses to laundry detergent. They also repaired SAFER barriers and catch fences throughout Speedweeks.

Stat of the Race: Kenseth became just the first repeat Daytona 500 winner since Gordon in 2005.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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