In spite of the unusual happenings that perpetually occur at Daytona, this year a six hour plus rain delay with tornado warnings, here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 56th running of the Great American Race.
Surprising: With so much focus pre-race on the return of the No. 3, formerly driven by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and now by rookie Austin Dillon, the son of the Intimidator and NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. instead stole the show with his second Daytona 500 victory.
This was Junior’s 20th victory in the Cup Series and, with the win, he joined Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson as two-time Daytona 500 winners.
“I’ll never take this for granted,” Junior said. “We’re two time Daytona champions.”
In addition to the coveted win at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. had a big weekend overall. The team bearing his name, JR Motorsports, won the Nationwide Drive4COPD 300 race with driver Regan Smith at the wheel.
Not Surprising: In spite of several on-track incidents, the driver of the aforementioned No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing, did quite well for himself, starting from the pole and finishing ninth.
Austin Dillon was also the highest finishing rookie of the race, taking the early lead in a Sunoco Rookie of the year battle.
“That’s what this year is about — experience, trying to finish races and getting better each week,” Dillon said, “We have a long year ahead of us, I’d like to use some of this momentum going forward. I know it’s going to be a long, tough year, and hopefully we’ll be there at the end of these races and try to learn something.”
Surprising: Goodyear had a little scare early in the race when both Kyle Larson and Greg Biffle had tire problems, causing hard hits into the wall for the rookie and veteran racers.
Larson, in the No. 42 race car formerly driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, actually hit the wall twice in the opening laps, going a lap down and soldiering on to finish 38th.
In spite of his blown tire early in the race, Biffle had a much better finish than Larson, taking the checkered flag in the eighth spot in his No. 16 3M Ford.
“It was a good night,” Biffle said. “We had a really strong car but the 88 was real fast. We just couldn’t hold him off.”
Not Surprising: With the combo platter of the rain delay, potential for additional weather coming in, and the pent up energy of the first race of the season, it was not surprising that there were a number of pit road incidents that created some major mayhem for several drivers.
Early in the race, Matt Kenseth had contact on pit road and ended up spinning to pit backwards in his box. Both Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola removed equipment out of their pit boxes and had to serve costly penalties.
And then there was one of the more controversial calls, with Kasey Kahne called for speeding, all of which he did in an effort not to get hit by Michael Annett who had lost control of his vehicle coming to his pit.
Surprising: After dominating most everything during Speedweeks, from the Sprint Unlimited to the second Duel race, it was a bit surprising that Denny Hamlin did not claim the big prize. He did, however, come home in the runner up position in his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota, which was his best finish ever in the Daytona 500.
“I thought — the Duels and the Unlimited — I felt like our car didn’t have quite the speed,” Hamlin said. “It was a solid run for us and really it was a fun race.”
Not Surprising: Given the manufacturer change to Chevrolet and a new alliance with Richard Childress Racing, it was not surprising that Casey Mears and his GEICO No. 13 team had a great run in the Great American Race.
In fact, team GEICO finished in the top-10, getting their driver and crew chief Bootie Barker off to a great start for the season.
Surprising: The Labonte brothers, Bobby and Terry, not only made the race but had surprisingly good finishes, 15th and 20th respectively.
Brother Bobby extended his consecutive start street for the Great American Race to 22 while elder brother Terry most likely ran his last Daytona 500 competition.
Not Surprising: Because it was after all Daytona, there were several big crashes, collecting many good drivers, to no one’s surprise. One of those hard hits, however, impacted the only female in the field Danica Patrick.
“I think more than anything I am just upset because the GoDaddy car felt really good and it was the best car that I had all Speedweeks,” Patrick said. “I felt like everything was going pretty well, so it’s just upsetting.”
“It’s a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident.”
Surprising: With a more than six hour rain delay, some of NASCAR’s finest were up to some surprising activities to pass the time away. In fact, several of the racer dads were busy with their children, from Jeff Gordon making Lego creations to Keelan Harvick suiting up in his dad Kevin’s fire suit.
Probably most novel, however, was David Ragan, still clad in his own fire suit, who went out to pick up pizza for his team during the break.
Not Surprising: While Junior reigned triumphant in Victory Lane, just like in the Olympics, there was some agony of defeat in this year’s running for the Great American Race.
Most agonizing were those drivers impacted by engine or fuel pick up woes, including Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex, Jr. and Tony Stewart.
“If it was going to blow up, I wish it would have blown up four hours ago,” Clint Bowyer said. “I could have been home watching. Just disappointing — the guys work so hard for this race. Everybody is out there having fun and we broke our toy.”
“It’s definitely a tough break for our team,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I went to bed thinking this was my best chance to win the Daytona 500.”
The Cup Series moves on next to Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona for The Profit on CNBC 500 on March 2nd.