By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(February 15, 2009)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.— It wasn’t the thrilling finish fans have come to expect from the Daytona 500—except to Matt Kenseth.
When Kenseth got the news he had won the rain-shortened season opener in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, his car sat covered on pit road, as rain pelted the asphalt of Daytona International Speedway.
Kenseth, who started from the rear of the field Sunday in a backup car after his primary No. 17 Ford was wrecked in Thursday’s qualifying race, took the lead from Elliott Sadler on the final lap of green-flag racing and held the top spot under caution until NASCAR red-flagged the race because of rain after 152 of a scheduled 200 laps.
When NASCAR called the race a few minutes later, Kenseth celebrated. So did crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who won the Daytona 500 in his debut as a Sprint Cup crew chief. For Kenseth, who was winless in the Cup series last year, the victory was his 17th in 329 career starts.
Kevin Harvick, winner of the Feb. 7 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, finished second behind Kenseth, who was leading on Lap 146 when NASCAR called a caution for a wreck on the backstretch involving Sam Hornish Jr. and Aric Almirola.
AJ Allmendinger, who needed the help of Richard Petty Motorsports teammates Reed Sorenson and Sadler to race his way into the 500 in Thursday’s second Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying race, was third when NASCAR called the race, followed by Clint Bowyer and Sadler, who was shuffled back to fifth before caution flew for the eighth and final time on Lap 146.
David Ragan, Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart, Sorenson and Kurt Busch completed the top 10, as the Petty organization placed three of its four drivers in the top 10 in its first outing under the RPM name.
"It’s going to be really wet out here because I’m crying like a baby,” Kenseth said after getting the word he was the winner of the 51st Daytona 500. “After last year, winning a race means a lot to me. … We’ve had some really fast cars on the speedways in the past and I’ve just never been able to figure out how to do the right thing, and today we were able to make the right moves.”
Sunday’s race was the fourth in Daytona 500 history to be shortened by rain. The most recent was 2003 when the race was called after 109 laps with Michael Waltrip leading.
“We got some weather, but yet we did race 400-and-some miles (actually 380), and we were able to pull it off,” said Kenseth, who delivered car owner Jack Roush his first Daytona 500. “I was pretty miserable some nights because we just couldn’t make our car handle, and this backup car is actually way better than the (primary) 500 car. I felt pretty good going into this morning, but I didn’t dream we were going to win.”
Given a few more laps, Harvick might well have won his second 500 in three years. He was sixth for a restart on Lap 143, after caution for an incident involving Hornish, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, but quickly stormed into the second position.
“Another lap, you never know what would have happened if that doesn’t shake out like it did,” Harvick said. “I mean, you always want to win the race. Knowing what it’s like to win the Daytona 500, it’s a lot of fun to win and neat to be in victory lane.
“But, you know, it’s also kind of bittersweet, I guess you could say, for the fact that Matt is the one that pushed me to my Daytona 500 win (in 2007). In the end, it’s kind of weird how that stuff works out.”
Notes: Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 27th and had a very eventful race. He made two errors on pit road, and a brush with Brian Vickers started a 10-car pileup on Lap 124. ... After leading a race-high 88 laps, Kyle Busch was eliminated in the Earnhardt/Vickers incident and finished 41st. ... Jimmie Johnson began his quest for a fourth straight Cup title in lackluster fashion, finishing 31st. ... Jeff Gordon finished 13th, the highest finish for Hendrick Motorsports. ... This was the first victory for Ford in the 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000.
(Photo Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images)