Say what you will about the 1979 fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. You could also make a case for the 1976 finish between Richard Petty and David Pearson. Even still, the 56th running of the Daytona 500 was the greatest running of the Great American Race NASCAR has ever seen.
This year’s Daytona 500 had everything. From start to finish, it was jam-packed with drama. On lap 39, the race was red-flagged as a massive thunderstorm rolled in. It was so intense that track officials recruited dozens of school buses to take fans to safer shelters. Six hours and 22 minutes later, fans ventured back to the grounds and drivers to their cars to continue what would become the greatest 150-lap shootout ever.
Early on in a restrictor plate race, you’ll see drivers fan out and run single file for laps at a time. It’s a defensive maneuver to save their cars for the end. Rather than run door-to-door and risk crashing, they relax and log laps. When they get inside of about 25 laps, that’s when business really starts to heat up.
When this race resumed, that mindset was thrown to the wind. They raced hard two sometimes three-wide lap after lap. As another storm was already off in the distance threatening to end the race, all bets were off once they got past the halfway point — it was winner takes all.
With 55 laps to go, we got a first-hand look at what happens when you race that hard for that long. Aric Almirola got turned around and triggered a 12-car pileup. Would the big crash change the intensity of the race? Absolutely not. With 37 laps to go, another multi-car crash occurred. This time, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson came together to start the melee.
Already feeling like the longest race ever, a green-white-checkered finish was needed after another multi-car pile up with six laps left. Before the flag man dropped the green flag to turn the field loose, drama had already found the race’s leader, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As the field drove down the backstretch under caution, a piece of bear-bond (giant, extra-strength duct tape) attached itself to the grill of Earnhardt’s car. With no way of removing it, he risked overheating his race car and losing. Lucky for him, the piece of tape only covered part of the opening, so his car was spared.
With a giant shove from teammate Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt sailed off into turn one with a car-length lead on the ensuing restart. Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski mounted valiant attacks on the leader, but the son of the late great “Intimidator” was just too much. As the field wrecked behind him out of turn no. 4 on the last lap, Earnhardt drove to victory.
The 56th running of the Daytona 500 had it all. After a standard start to the race, a long weather-related red flag made some question if the race would be completed on Sunday. Once the race was restarted under the lights in prime time, we were treated to some of the closest and most intense racing we’ve ever seen at Daytona.
It was a roller-coaster ride of emotion, suspense, intensity and drama. Just when things seemed to be settling down, they picked right back up again. There was never a dull moment as the cars raced side-by-side for all 500 miles. Welcome back, NASCAR. It’s good to see you again.