DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – A decade after his first DAYTONA 500 victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Gatorade Victory Lane in a thrilling finish to the 56th annual DAYTONA 500 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
After being the runner-up three of the last four years in the DAYTONA 500, Earnhardt – who had not won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway since his Budweiser Duel and Sprint Unlimited wins during the 2008 Speedweeks – took the time to let it soak in with a long, reverse-lap drive down the frontstretch of the 2.5-mile tri-oval, showing his appreciation for the win and for the fans.
“To win this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” said Earnhardt after climbing out of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel this again and it feels just as good, if not better than the first (win) because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all of those years.
“This race car was awesome. We showed them all night long what a good car we had,” continued Earnhardt, who led a race-high 54 of the 200 laps. “That (car) could do anything – we fought off battles after battles and we got a little help from Jeff (Gordon) at the end to get away on that restart. This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted because this doesn’t happen twice, let along once, so I’m thankful.”
Coming in second was Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. After winning The Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race in the Budweiser Duel, Hamlin hoped to become the first driver to ever win all three of the Sprint Cup Series races during Budweiser Speedweeks. Hamlin had a strong car and remained in the lead pack throughout the night despite being without radio communication for the majority of the race.
“There’s a lot to be disappointed about, but there’s a lot to be happy about,” Hamlin said. “My radios weren’t working so I had to wing it those last 150 laps on my own. With not having a spotter there on that last (restart), I didn’t know whether to back up more. I was just trying not to wreck anyone, trying not to get in trouble, trying to spot all six corners by myself. Still a great run, but I am a little disappointed.
“Any other year I probably would have been jumping up and down,” Hamlin said about his finish. “We can hardly finish these races, much less have a shot at a victory.”
Being his own spotter was quite a feat for Hamlin in a race where the top drivers in the world showcased their talent racing two- and three-wide the entire race. There were 42 lead changes among 18 drivers, the most in the season opener since 2011.
Hendrick Motorsports had a strong showing and held the top-three spots with under 10 laps to go. Gordon ended up fourth and defending race and series champion Jimmie Johnson fifth. Chevrolet held five of top-10 positions and has won the DAYTONA 500 six of the last seven years.
The 43-car field included nine former DAYTONA 500 champions and seven Rookie of the Year candidates. With a ninth-place finish, the highest-finishing rookie was Austin Dillon, who qualified the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the pole and led the first lap. The race marked the return of the No. 3 car to NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. Dillon was involved in multiple incidents during the race and admitted it was a learning experience.
“It was a good run. I felt like we were a pinball out there a little bit,” Dillon said. “I learned a lot. Definitely the rookie stripes were out tonight, but somehow we ended up with a top 10.”
The race was red flagged for 6 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds for rain and slowed seven times for 39 laps.