Commentary

Matt Kenseth wins bizarre Daytona 500

Updated: February 28, 2012, 3:07 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For once, a finish to the Daytona 500 was anticlimactic, an afterthought, merely the ebb of the craziness of the past few days.

Teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were so strong in the late stages, in the wee hours of Tuesday, that it was increasingly apparent one was going to win.

It was Kenseth who held off both Biffle and their most serious challenger, Dale Earnhardt Jr., throughout the green-white-checkered finish.

"We never could get to Matt," said Earnhardt, who tried to push Biffle to the front, "but that wasn't materializing so I just pulled out to try to get the second spot."

[+] EnlargeFire
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesRacing was stopped for more than two hours after Juan Pablo Montoya slid into a jet dryer, igniting an explosion.

He did, slipping past Biffle on the last lap.

Kenseth and Biffle stayed 1-2 through the last three restarts, with Biffle repeatedly pushing Kenseth out front.

"We both had really fast rockets," Kenseth said of their Roush Fords. "I think it just ended up as who was in front at the end."

Earnhardt was tucked up "against me for two full laps, and I couldn't pull up on the 17 [Kenseth]," Biffle said. "It was like the 17 had more motor or something at the end. It was like he floored it and I couldn't catch him."

But, ho-hum, those last three redundant restarts came after the really bizarre spectacle of the evening, and actually in the 54-year history of this race.

Many a time, just when we thought we'd seen it all in the various editions of NASCAR's showcase event, we've stood in the aftermath and said we'd never seen anything like … (fill in the blank).

But most of the time we've had to wait until after the checkered flag to say that.

At just before 10 o'clock Monday night, with 40 laps left and "go time" nearing for the field, the race was suddenly shut down for more than two hours due to a cloud of jet-fuel fire, ignited when Juan Pablo Montoya's car slid sideways and rear-ended a jet dryer blowing debris off the track -- under caution, no less.

And the evening opened with a second-lap crash that took out Jimmie Johnson and crippled the cars of Danica Patrick and defending 500 champion Trevor Bayne.

All this on top of a 30-hour delay in the start of the race that began Sunday with the first outright rainout in the history of the race.

The race finally started after 7 p.m. Monday, and after the early crash it was clicking along smoothly, with no rain issues. Threatening showers that appeared on the radar dissipated before they got to the track.

But after the fire, the race wasn't restarted until just after midnight.

The only track-condition issue that remotely compared to Monday night's shutdown was the notorious pot hole that delayed the race twice two years ago, and that was a boring, crowd-annoying sort of public works issue.

The kerosene fire in the third turn of Daytona International Speedway blazed so intensely as to cause concern it might damage or even destroy the asphalt. Track president Joie Chitwood III said more than 200 gallons of fuel fed the fire.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR/Getty ImagesMatt Kenseth celebrated his second Daytona 500 championship in four years.

"There is no manual for [dealing with] a track on fire," Chitwood said.

Both Montoya and the driver of the dryer truck, Duane Barnes, escaped the fire without serious injury.

Scarred by the pot hole issue of 2010, speedway maintenance crews took the two hours not so much to put out the fire and clean up the mess but also to ensure that the track surface at the high-speed entry to the third turn was safe for racing.

Montoya hardly knew what happened himself.

"Something fell in the rear end of the car, and the car just spun into the jet dryer," Montoya said. He had just pitted under the caution, complaining of a bad vibration in the car. His crew checked the car and declared it OK, but "I still told them 'I think there is something broke.' " He returned to the pits, still felt the vibration, and was planning to pit yet again when "the car just turned right."

The win was Kenseth's second in the Daytona 500 in the past four years. In 2009, he won what remains the shortest 500 in history, only 109 of the standard 200 laps, after a downpour halted that race.

Earnhardt, even riding a winless streak that dates back to the summer of 2008, wasn't at all deflated with his second-place finish.

Why? Earnhardt pointed out just how predictable Kenseth's win has been since Thursday, when he won his 150-mile qualifying race.

"The Roush cars are just really strong," Earnhardt said. "They've shown that all week. I really didn't know just how good they were until I got up there those last 60 laps [even before the bizarre fire], and I could get in between them, but I couldn't get in front of them.

"Just didn't have car enough to get around them and get the lead."

And so the finish wasn't shocking -- certainly nothing like the Richard Petty-David Pearson crash coming to the flag that Pearson won in 1976, nothing like the Cale Yarborough-Allison brothers fight on '79, nor the regular duels to the checkered flag during the past quarter-century of restrictor-plate racing.

But as usual, the Daytona 500, the event itself, was memorable and unique.

So now again we're reminded that you never can say you've seen it all in the Daytona 500.

Each year you can only ask: What next?

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.