Welcome to the 36 Hours of Daytona.
In a season-opener that was scheduled for Sunday afternoon but didn't finish until well after midnight on Tuesday morning, Matt Kenseth took home the victory in dramatic fashion over teammate Greg Biffle. The race, which had been postponed by rain twice before finally taking the green flag at 7:00pm Tuesday, featured a bizarre chain of events before concluding with a green-white-checkered dash.
The win was Kenseth's second one in the 500, the first of which came in 2009.
The original scheduled starting time for the 54th running of the Daytona 500 was 1:00pm Sunday afternoon, but that was quickly wiped off the slate with a pounding of thunderstorms throughout that afternoon and evening. NASCAR then announced the new green flag time would be noon Monday, the first-ever 500 not held on a weekend. But once again, Mother Nature proved too powerful and fast for track officials, who couldn't dry the track in time for the event. Yet a third start time was declared by the sport, this time for 7:00pm of the same day. Thankfully, it stopped downpouring just a few hours before the event, which left plenty of time for track crews but little rubber for drivers.
Because of the lack of grip, the race got off to a quick start, with Jimmie Johnson getting turned into the outside wall by Elliott Sadler headed into Turn 1 on Lap 2. Collected in the ensuing mayhem were Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch, Trevor Bayne, and David Ragan. Johnson and Busch were taken out permanently with severe side and front end damage, respectively. The other drivers, while wounded, continued on for the rest of the 500 miles.
Following that point, the 500 took a turn for the better. As the track rubbered up and gained grip, drivers became more confident in their ability to push the limit in the recently-resurrected pack draft. With the exception of a solo spin by Ryan Newman on Lap 13, the course of the event had no caution flags for almost 70 laps. Much like the Budweiser Shootout on February 18, pack racing returned, proving that the mini races during Speedweeks were no fluke. Among the drivers who were comfortable with this type of racing, unseen in the Cup Series since 2008, were Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Burton, who combined to lead all but 28 of the first 170 laps.
Perhaps one of the more talked about changes for this 2012 race was the $200,000 prize for the driver who lead Lap 100, the halfway point of the event. It was used as a way to spice up the action mid-race by series sponsor Sprint. It did just that, as three different drivers lead Laps 98, 99, and 100. Using a huge push from Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. charged from outside the top 10 to pocket the extra cash.
While that extra incentive was used to enhance the racing mid-way through the 200 laps, fan didn't have to wait much longer to witness what will go down as one of the oddest events of the year.
When the caution flew on Lap 157 for David Stremme's blown engine, the leaders pitted for tires and fuel to set themselves up for a one-stop race. But among the drivers who had fallen a lap down and took the wave-around instead of pit was Juan Pablo Montoya. He has been complaining about a vibration in the car for more than 5 laps at the time of the caution, and reported the transmission "locking up" whenever he hit the gas. As track service crews were in the high lane cleaning the debris and rubber, Montoya's transmission gave way at over 150 mph heading into Turn 3. He went straight up into one of the jet dryer service trucks, knocking it airborne and his own car into the grass. Jet driers are basically jet engines strapped onto the rear of a street truck, and the motors can carry up to 200 gallons of jet fuel at a time. After the collision, fuel began to spill out onto the track and catch fire.
Track crews rushed to stop the flow and battle the flames, which had risen to 20 feet high. After 15 minutes, the blaze had been abolished and a mixture of quick dry and Tide. By this point, the red flag had been flown, bringing a stoppage of racing that lasted over two hours. The racing surface had returned to normal, and both Montoya and the truck driver were released from the hospital without injury.
The red flag gave teams the opportunity to make their final pit stop of the night. The previous leaders, Kenseth, Biffle, Hamlin, and Burton, returned to the front of the pack and led the field to the green with 40 to go. This sparked a flurry of late-race cautions, the first of which was on Lap 176, the second on Lap 187, the final on Lap 196.. The first crash occurred when Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears spun out is a two-car incident. no major damage was done to either car. The same was not true of the final two incidents, however. Both took place on the exit of the tri-oval into Turn 1 in eerily similar scenarios. Both occurred when the driver pushing the other tapped his left-rear corner, sending him around in front of a tight pack. Brad elowski, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwards, and many other notables were involved. This set up the green-white-checkered finish.
Matt Kenseth led the field to the green flag, followeddclosely by Greg Biffle and Dale JR. The three quickly seperated themselves from the rest of the pack, leading by over half a second by the back straightaway of the first lap. They ran sigle-file all the way around, and remained in that order until Earnhardt passed the No. 16 right before the start/finish line. The rest of the field behind them remained much the same, too, running sie-by-side to the finish. Here is the link to the final finishing order: http://www.nascar.com/races/cup/2012/1/data/results_unofficial.html