DAYTON BEACH, Fla. — Through rain and night, no one left Daytona International Speedway.What a reward they got.Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver, won the Daytona 500 in a thrill ride to the finish, 10 years after his last victory in the Super Bowl of NASCAR and 13 years after his father’s death in the same race.Adding symbolism to the victory, it came on the day when the No. 3 car made famous by his father returned to race again at Daytona.In Victory Circle, Earnhardt almost couldn’t catch his breath to talk.“Man, to win this race, is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport,” he said between breaths. “Aside from accepting the trophy for the championship. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.”Earnhardt had to steel himself to survive two restarts, first to fight off teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and finally in a mad dash to hold off 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski.Earnhardt had been second in three of the previous four Daytona 500s, so he was gripping the wheel.“Year after year, running second all them years and wondering why and thinking what we needed to do,” he said.Earnhardt’s victory ended a 10-year winless streak on the superspeedway “restrictor-plate” tracks where he, like his father before him, made his reputation. It was his third Sprint Cup victory at Daytona, including the July race in 2001, to go with six Nationwide Series wins.“I can’t believe this is happening,” Earnhardt said. “I’ll never take this for granted.”After he crossed the finish line, Earnhardt shook his fist in delight and took his helmet off to reveal a big smile.“Got to get my head together, think about what I need to do,” he said in Victory Lane, where he had not been in any race since 2012. “Thank my sponsors. And my team. This race car was awesome. Showed them all night long what kind of car we had. We fought off battle after battle.”Earnhardt was just as nervous coming down the stretch, when he had the lead after the halfway point and kept coaxing all the speed he needed from his car.His crew chief, Steve Letarte, who is moving on to television after the season, asked him on the radio, “Having fun?”Earnhardt replied, “Yeah, but it’s the big prize, man. It’s hard to enjoy it! … I’m enjoying bits and pieces of it. But the entire experience is driving me crazy.”Earnhardt’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports embraced his victory.“He’s been knocking on the door in the 500 here for a lot of years,” Gordon said. “Got the job done. What an awesome job.”The victory finished off a nearly nine-hour day of racing that began with rookie Austin Dillon driving the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing. It was that car that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was driving in 2001 when he crashed on the last lap of the 500 and died. Sunday, Dillon was involved in two wrecks and finished ninth.The delay was 6 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds because of rain and a tornado warning.For Fox television, the resumption of the race saved a day when it inadvertently fooled viewers.During the delay, Fox replayed last year’s race, but not everybody got the memo.Fans across the country live-tweeted the replay as if it were the actual race, apparently oblivious to the crawl on the bottom of the screen that said the race was in a rain delay.One fan started retweeting some of the posts, and Deadspin.com collected them under the headline, “Scores of Idiots Don’t Realize Fox is Airing Last Year’s Daytona 500.”The drivers picked up on it, too.Last year’s winner, Jimmie Johnson, seeing messages of congratulations on his phone, tweeted, “I hear I won the #Daytona500? Haha”Even NASCAR officials got in the act.“Congrats @JimmieJohnson amazing,” tweeted vice president of competition Steve O’Donnell.On the live broadcast later, analyst Darrell Waltrip finished up a point about Johnson’s strong performance by saying, “He’s already won the Daytona 500 once today.”The race resumed with all but one car on the track. Martin Truex retired 32 laps in because of a blown engine.The Daytona 500 has been delayed in three of the past five years. In 2010, a pot hole caused a two-hour delay. In 2012, rain forced the race to be run on Monday night, and that night, driver Juan Pablo Montoya hit a jet dryer on the track that set the surface on fire.Safety workers had to use detergent to clean the track and get it ready for racing.
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez