DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It came down to a final green-white-checkered flag restart at Daytona International Speedway, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was ready.
The driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet lined up fourth for the restart, and at the drop of the green flag, he began pushing front-runner Greg Biffle. Using the momentum from the draft, Earnhardt clawed his way past Biffle, but didn’t have enough to catch leader Matt Kenseth in the closing stretch. Earnhardt crossed the finish line second, picking up his third career runner-up finish at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
“I told Greg that I was going to push him on that last restart, and I pushed him,” said Earnhardt, who now ranks second in the driver standings. “I thought he was waiting and waiting, and he looked like he might have been trying to make a move on that last straightaway. But I kind of waited until the last minute, and nothing was happening so I just pulled out and went around him.
“Matt (Kenseth, winner) had a strong car. The Roush guys were really quick all week. I was proud of the horsepower we had in our Hendrick cars. We had g reat speed all week dwon here. Our car performed well all week. I want to thank everybody. This car is so good every time it comes down here. The craftsmanhip inside and out is amazing.”
Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates weren’t as fortunate during the rescheduled Daytona 500. Kasey Kahne finished 23rd, Jeff Gordon was 39th, and Jimmie Johnson took 42nd.
The 500-mile event was postponed from Sunday afternoon to Monday night after rain showers persisted in the Daytona Beach area. Ultimately, NASCAR officials decided Monday night offered the best window of opportunity.
Earnhardt opened Monday’s race from fifth, while Johnson started from the eighth position. Johnson had improved to seventh when he received a tap from behind that inspired a five-car incident on the frontstretch. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet ricocheted off the outside wall and back across the field, resting in the middle of the track, where he was struck again.
"I'm OK,” Johnson said. “I’m just really bummed-out for this whole Lowe's team. 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. Disappointed, but nothing I can do about it now. We'll just go on and go to Phoenix (International Raceway) and set our marks on winning that race.”
Gordon started 16th in his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet and started making his charge toward the front, leading on Lap 58. But 23 laps later, the three-time Daytona 500 winner was experiencing an engine issue that prompted him to stick his hand out the window and signal to the competition. Gordon reported to his team that his gauges didn’t appear to be working properly, and he was forced to retire the No. 24 Chevrolet.
"There has been so much reliability testing that if we had seen some high temps or some high water pressure, then I would have kind of expected some of this to happen,” Gordon said. “But I was actually seeing some surprising low temps and low pressures. I don't know, maybe something was off there.
"Boy, it is a shame. Our Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet was really strong. We were just biding our time and being patient and working with guys. Every once in a while we could get up there to the front. But, we weren't even really trying at that time."
When the field restarted on Lap 90, Kahne and Earnhardt were running sixth and eighth, respectively. The duo tested the waters on the ensuing lap, and Kahne forced his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet into the top five with Earnhardt pushing closely behind. As Kahne made his way through the field, Earnhardt used the momentum to sling his No. 88 Chevrolet by and move among the leaders.
As the race unfolded and green-flag stops began, Earnhardt and Kahne hit pit road for tires and fuel. On pit road, Kahne sustained minor damage to his fenders after he and Elliott Sadler made contact. Kahne reported to his team that he braked as hard as he could, but he still felt the impact. He returned to pit road, where his team quickly fixed the damage and sent the No. 5 Chevy back onto the track on the lead lap.
On Lap 157, the caution flag was waved at Daytona International Speedway, and Earnhardt, who had been mindful of fuel conservation, took the opportunity to hit pit road. Earnhardt stopped for fuel and right-side tires before lining up sixth in his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet. Before the field could restart, Juan Pablo Montoya sustained an issue in Turn 3 and made contact with the service truck, igniting a blaze that red-flagged the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
After a red-flag period, which stretched more than two hours, the drivers fired up their engines to race the last 36 laps of the 2012 Daytona 500. Earnhardt returned to his spot among the leaders, which proved to be the safest place to be. As the race wound down, he avoided several late-race, multi-car incidents, including one with less than 10 to go that collected Kahne.