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Posted: Sunday February 15, 2009 7:17PM; Updated: Monday February 16, 2009 1:19PM

Late pass hands Kenseth win at rain-shortened Daytona 500

Story Highlights

Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 that was called after 152 laps due to rain

Kenseth did not win a race last year and had never won the Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt caused a big crash that knocked out Kyle Bush, who led 88 laps

By Bruce Martin, SI.com

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Matt Kenseth snapped a 36-race winless streak on Sunday at the Daytona 500.
John Harrelson/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida --- Matt Kenseth's surprising, rain-shortened victory in Sunday's 51st Daytona 500 came in a race that desperately needed an ending.

Rained out with 152 laps completed in the scheduled 200-lap contest, NASCAR's biggest race had its most surprising winner since Michael Waltrip won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 in 2003. That's the same year that Kenseth was the Cup Series champion.

Kenseth won the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career. He also gave team owner Jack Roush his first victory in this race as Ford returned to victory lane for the first time since Dale Jarrett in 2000. The win snapped a 36-race winless streak for Kenseth.

With rain expected to linger through the night, NASCAR officials called the event 17 minutes after it was red-flagged after 152 laps. That gave the driver of the No. 17 Ford his 17th career Cup victory.

And it brought tears of joy flowing down Kenseth's face as he celebrated the wet victory on pit road.

"It's going to be really wet out here because I'm crying like a baby," Kenseth said. "I've had a lot of great opportunities in my life -- from my family getting me in racing and all the sponsors that we have that have stuck by us and made this happen in an up and down economy. Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment. It's just an unbelievable feeling."

The win was worth $1,536,388 to Kenseth. After celebrating, Kenseth was able to reflect on the biggest victory of his career.

"To be honest, it hasn't sunk in," Kenseth said. "I woke up this morning thinking I wasn't going to win the Daytona 500. I wasn't happy with the car and it got wrecked in the 150s anyway. It's pretty unbelievable to win the Daytona 500. I'll take it. I'm not going to think any less of the victory. We still almost ran 400 miles."

It was Drew Blickenderfer's first race as a Cup Series crew chief with Kenseth.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," Blickenderfer said. "It's kind of surreal. It can only go downhill from here."

Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner, was second. A.J. Allmendinger's Dodge was third followed by Clint Bowyer's Chevrolet and Elliott Sadler's Dodge.

Sadler was the leader until he was passed by Kenseth just a half-lap before the final yellow flag of the race came out on lap 147 after Aric Almirola crashed on the backstretch with Kasey Kahne. Five laps later, it started to rain and the red-flag was displayed, halting the race.

"I really had it in my mind that once I got ahead of Elliott, we weren't going to pit again," Kenseth said. "Elliott stayed in his lane and Kevin game me a push. I didn't know it would be THE pass but it had the potential to be."

When NASCAR officials called the race, Kenseth's joy was matched by Sadler's heartache for a driver who was out of his ride in late December, went to court and got his No. 19 Dodge back in January.

"If you would have told me at the beginning of the day if I would take a fifth-place finish and lead some laps in the Daytona 500, I would have probably took it," Sadler said. "It's a great way to get a good start to the season.

"But to be a half-lap short from being the champion of the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me. I had a chance to win it. I just made one mistake off Turn 4. Kevin and Matt had a really good run. I thought maybe if I blocked to the outside somebody might come with me. But they had such a good head of steam. I really wanted to go to the Victory Lane with my guys. I needed this after the off-season that I've had."

It was the fourth time in Daytona 500 history the full 500 miles were not completed.

Kenseth led just one time for seven laps, six of those under the yellow flag.

The dominant driver in this race was actually Kyle Busch, who led twice for 88 laps.

Just when it appeared Busch was going to run away with the victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s temper ruined Busch's dream of winning his first Daytona 500.

Busch was involved in a massive crash when the race was restarted on lap 124 following a caution period. The crashed was triggered when Brian Vickers drove in front of Earnhardt's Chevrolet on the backstretch in a battle between two cars that were one lap down.

Earnhardt ran into the back of Vickers' Toyota, starting a crash that took out some of the best cars in the race. Other contenders involved in the crash included Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Speed and Vickers.

"I didn't have any control over my car once he knocked me below the yellow line," Earnhardt radioed to his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., under caution.

Sadler was in front, ahead of Sorenson on a restart, but the field never made it through the third turn before Earnhardt turned into Vickers.

"Some guys having some bad days and not doing their best out there," Busch said after he was knocked out of the race. "It made their bad day our bad day and we had a problem. It's just a shame. That Toyota was so strong today and led all those laps and was running up front. I was just playing with my teammate up there and having a great time. It's just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down and were fighting over nothing."

When asked how disappointed he was to have his race end this way, Busch said, "This is about a 15 on a 10 scale. I think we were the best car out there. Jeff Gordon and I were strong. Denny Hamlin was strong. I felt like our car was the car to beat. We were awfully good and just running out front and biding our time. It's just a really sad feeling."

Earnhardt said it was "accidental."

"I didn't want to wreck half the field," Earnhardt said. "Rain was coming and I was trying to win the race. Vickers drove us down into the grass and I didn't have any control after that. I was under a lot of pressure, too. I wasn't thinking good enough. I really can't blame it on anyone other than myself."

Earlier in the race, Earnhardt made his second pit road mistake and that earned the Daytona 500 fan favorite a one-lap penalty by NASCAR officials when he pitted just a few inches on the out-of-bounds lane in his pit area. NASCAR officials to hold him in the pits for one lap. He had been running fifth at the time of the infraction.

On the next restart, both Vickers and Earnhardt were battling to be in the "Lucky Dog" position to get back on the lead lap.

"We were all racing for the `Lucky Dog' there and my goal was to keep Jr. behind me and I went to block him," Vickers said. "I beat him to the yellow line and then he just turned us. He hit me the first time on the way down, which is fine, we all do that. Then we came back and he just hooked me in the left rear and typically, NASCAR penalizes that.

"Jason Leffler was penalized five laps yesterday for doing the same thing during the Nationwide race. I guess they are not going to penalize him for that. It's kind of sad. To wreck somebody intentionally like that in front of the entire field is really kind of dangerous. Apparently, he wanted a caution bad."

When Kyle Busch led the field under the crossed flags at the flagstand on lap 100, it became an official race which meant with rain on its way, there was a good chance this race would never make it to the full 500 miles before being interrupted.

Joey Logano, an 18-year-old rookie, crashed out of the race on Lap 81 and was uninjured. He was the youngest driver ever to start the Daytona 500.

There were seven drivers that had to drop to the rear of the field at the start of the Daytona 500 because they were in backup cars, including the Stewart-Haas duo of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who were involved in a crash in Saturday's final practice session after a right-rear Goodyear tire exploded on Newman's Chevrolet.

Stewart was able to drive from the back of the pack to the front of the field in just 54 laps. He would stay in front for 15 laps before finishing eighth.

"You can't predict the weather," Stewart said. "It's part of racing. It's not the first time we got rained on at a race track. Congratulations to Matt. He got himself in position to win there and that is what you have to do. We all knew the weather was coming. It was a matter of scrambling to try to get there. To leave here with a third (Budweiser Shootout), second (Gatorade Duel at Daytona) and an eighth (in the 500), I can't really say that is disappointing."

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon finished 13th and three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finished 31st.

This cold, damp night was fitting to Kenseth, a driver from Cambridge, Wisc., who is often criticized for his lack of emotion.

"I really am an emotional guy, you guys just don't see it," the winner said. "I told my wife, Katie, in the motorhome that I'm tired of not being a contender. To be able to put it together and win the Daytona 500, I'm not really the best at plate racing, but to win this race is pretty overwhelming."

 
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