Kenseth wins rain-shortened Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ” So consistently calm inside a race car, Matt Kenseth took his entire team by surprise when he started screaming for rain seconds after grabbing the lead in the Daytona 500.
He was out front in a race against the weather, and a victory in the Super Bowl of NASCAR hung in the balance.
“From nowhere I heard Matt Kenseth kind of scream that said, “Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!” said rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. “That’s very uncharacteristic of him. He’s so calm, cool, kind of ice cold, that you usually don’t have to say anything to Matt to calm him down.”
Kenseth quickly pulled himself together, quietly riding out six caution laps around Daytona International Speedway as the rain began to fall on Sunday’s season-opening race. NASCAR called the cars to pit road, and while other drivers climbed from their cars to wait for a decision, Kenseth sat alone inside his Ford.
When NASCAR called the race about 20 minutes into the delay, the real downpour began.
The quiet, unassuming former NASCAR champion burst into tears upon being declared the winner of the shortened race in an unexpected show of emotion for one of the sport’s most underappreciated stars.
Then again, he’d waited a decade for a legitimate shot at winning the Daytona 500. And the failures and frustrations of late ” he was coming off a winless 2008 season ” had started to wear on Kenseth. He admitted to venting to his wife about his struggles just the day before the 500.
“I was telling her, ‘Man, I’m really getting fed up with not winning, with not being a contender,”‘ he said. “It was actually starting to weigh on me more than we thought. We haven’t been a serious contender for the championship for a few years. To be able to put it all together, be able to win the race, is pretty overwhelming.”
This race was against Mother Nature, with every driver hoping to be out front when the rain that had been threatening the track all day finally arrived.
Elliott Sadler prayed it would be him, but he was answered a tick too late. Kenseth used a huge push from Kevin Harvick to slide past Sadler 54 laps from the finish, and mere seconds before Aric Almirola spun to bring out a caution.
Then it began to rain, and after the six caution laps, NASCAR sent the drivers to pit road to wait out the storm.
That’s where Kenseth pulled it together.
“I actually am a pretty emotional guy. You guys just don’t always really see it,” he said. “I just wanted to wait until it was either over or we were going to go race again. I didn’t want to let my emotions get too high one way or another.”
The race was called after 152 of 200 laps. It was just the fourth rain-shortened 500 in race’s 51-year history, and first since Michael Waltrip’s 2003 victory.
Sadler bemoaned his bad timing.
“If I would have made a better and smarter move, I’d be in Victory Lane right now,” Sadler said. “Very hard to swallow. Very emotional.”
The win was the first for Kenseth since the 2007 season finale, a streak of 36-winless races. He was also 11th in the final season standings, his lowest finish since he was 13th during a winless 2001 campaign.
But he’s back on top again, and gave team owner Jack Roush his first Daytona 500 victory in the process.
“I tell you what, after last year, winning a race means a lot to me,” Kenseth said. “I’ve had a lot of great opportunities in my life ” from my family getting me in racing and really … all the sponsors that we have that have stuck by us and made this happen in an up-and-down economy.
“Man, I don’t know. Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment. It’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
Harvick, who used a push from Kenseth to win the 500 in 2007, finished second and said Kenseth would be a popular winner among his competitors.
“I think Matt’s obviously a pretty standup person and a great race car driver,” Harvick said. “I think he’s one of those guys that he can win seven or eight races in a year and never receive any credit. He’s a really good race car driver. He’s a champion, Daytona 500 champion.”
AJ Allmendinger, who had to race his way into the field in one of Thursday’s qualifiers, finished third.
Clint Bowyer was fourth, and Sadler was fifth, devastated he lost the lead. He led 24 laps and was out front during an earlier caution, hoping the sky would open up at that moment to give him the win.
“That’s just my luck,” he radioed his crew. “It’s raining on the radar and not on the track. Welcome to the team.”
Sadler nearly lost his job in December, when team management decided to replace him with Allmendinger. He filed an injunction to stop the move, and the team changed its mind after merging with Petty Enterprises in early January.
A chance to win the 500 would have been sweet redemption.
“I put my heart and soul to come in here to Daytona, Speedweeks, try to compete at the top of my game, ’cause I knew I had a lot of eyes on me to run good,” he said. “It would have been cool to finish like that, but just wasn’t meant to be. Very hard to swallow. Very emotional.”
David Ragan was sixth and was followed by Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart, Reed Sorenson and Kurt Busch.
Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. was 11th. Defending race winner Ryan Newman was 36th. Joey Logano, who at 18 was the youngest starter in race history, finished 43rd.
The racing picked up much earlier than usual because of the threat of rain.
So it was no surprise when Dale Earnhardt Jr., frustrated by two pit-road mistakes that had dropped him a lap down, aggressively raced Brian Vickers for position on a restart just past the halfway mark.
Vickers blocked an attempted pass by pushing Earnhardt down below the yellow out-of-bounds line. When Earnhardt re-entered the racing surface, he clipped the left-rear corner of Vickers’ car to trigger a nine-car accident.
“My goal is to keep Junior behind me,” Vickers said. “I went to block him. I beat him to the yellow line and then he just turned us. To wreck somebody intentionally like that in front of the entire field is really kind of dangerous. That’s my problem with it.”
The accident knocked out Kyle Busch, who had led a race-high 88 laps and figured he was in position for the win.
“Some guys having some bad days and not doing their best out there, just made their bad day our bad day,” Busch said. “It’s just a shame. It’s just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down that were fighting over nothing.”