Murto: Daytona shines through rain

Even a long rain delay doesn’t take away from the shine of the 2014 Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win was just what NASCAR needed. It’s hard to top the most popular driver in the sport winning the sport’s biggest event. But as the day unfolded, the 500 was almost two races in one.

The race started on time shortly after 1 p.m. under a threat of rain. Before the race completed 40 of its 200 laps, that rain came, forcing the speedway to show the red flag and stop the action. At almost six-and-a-half hours, the delay was the longest the race ever recorded for a 500 that was completed on the day it started.

Prior to the red flag, drivers appeared to be cautious. There was a lot of single-file racing and drivers appeared to be taking it easy for the most part. Then the red was displayed as the track dodged tornadoes. But it was a very different race when the cars got back onto the track about 8:30 p.m. under the lights; the tornado was the race itself.

Maybe it was because the track temperature was cooler and tires had more grip. Maybe it was because the air temperature was cooler and engines produced more speed. Or perhaps it was because the race started under the threat of even more rain on the way, so nobody knew exactly how long they had to get to the front. Whatever the reason, the restarted race was not a continuation of the single-file parade that got rained on in the afternoon.

Two- and three-wide breathtaking action was the course of the rest of the evening when the race restarted with about 400 miles to go. Despite the furious action, the race went green for about 250 miles before the first of four big multi-car accidents, this one caused when Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott made contact coming off the fourth corner. The accident collected fan favorite Danica Patrick, who appeared to be moving up through the field cautiously but steadily.

The pole-sitting No. 3 car of Cup rookie Austin Dillon was collected in the first big crash, but he was able to continue. In fact, he caused the next two big crashes, first by driving into Kyle Larson’s car and then by ramming the rear of RCR teammate Ryan Newman. Somebody surely sat the talented Dillon down and asked him to calm down in future events.

The final big accident came as the pack roared out of Turn 4 toward the checkered flag. Harvick lost grip in the front of his car and slid into a competitor, causing the usual chain-reaction accident so common at Daytona. As there were still cars rounding Turns 3 and 4 toward the crash, NASCAR displayed a caution flag as the lead cars were close to the finish line. That didn’t affect the finish, as nobody was going to catch Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rob the 39-year-old racer of his second 500 win in 10 years, the 20th Cup win of his career.

Despite the close finish and fierce racing, there were still some who tried to claim that NASCAR somehow manipulated the race to allow Earnhardt to win. Many used the race-ending caution as the basis for their theory, claiming it kept second-place finisher Denny Hamlin from a chance to win.

In this case I agree with other journalists who would tell the sasquatch-spotting UFO abductees to hang up their tinfoil helmets; there was no conspiracy here. Races can’t be fixed, there are too many variables and there would be too many people in on it to accomplish the fix; nobody in racing can keep a secret. And how you can balk at a caution on the track as cars are crashing and other cars are racing into the scene is beyond me. No, as much benefit in good PR as NASCAR gets from Earnhardt’s victory, they didn’t give it to him.

Those benefits are many, though. Earnhardt Jr. won the 500 as his dad’s former number returned to the Cup ranks for the first time since his death in the same race 13 years ago. The sport’s most popular driver is all but secure in the Chase, giving his fans something to look forward to and a talking point for the media as the Chase gets closer.

Earnhardt Jr. is back in Daytona Victory Lane and back on top of the points; all seems right with the racing world. No amount of rain or tornadoes could keep this year’s 500 from shining.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.