Posted: Tue February 28, 2012 2:58AM; Updated: Tue February 28, 2012 8:33AM
Dustin Long
Dustin Long>INSIDE NASCAR

Grading Daytona 500 performances

Story Highlights

Matt Kenseth overcame a slew of problems to win Daytona and earn an A+

Contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick began 2012 with strong starts

Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart were among the biggest disappointments

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started 2012 strong with a second-place finish at Daytona.
Photographer Number 1/AP

Where to begin? A race that was scheduled to begin Sunday, ended Tuesday. A caution extended when a car spun into a jet dryer, causing a fireball and 200 gallons of jet fuel to burn the track. A driver tweeting pictures from his car during the delay. A race resuming and going beyond the scheduled distance. A fan favorite nearly winning the Daytona 500.

With so much that happened, NASCAR President Mike Helton was asked after the race if he had seen anything like this and said: "You do think about, "Oh my gosh, if that can happen, what else can happen.''

Much did and here's some drivers graded on their performance:

First, a grade for the race that had it all.

For those who managed to stay up well past midnight, we'll give it an B+. Can't give an A for this race because of what fans had to endure over the wait from Sunday.

From strictly a racing perspective, though, I give the race an A. The pack racing that so many fans wanted returned. And with it came the multi-car crashes. It was enough to keep people watching even as night turned into early morning.

For all of Speedweeks, Daytona gets a B. It would have been a higher grade but the rain delay from Sunday to Monday night dropped it down a notch. That's a shame because Speedweeks was about as entertaining as it has been in recent years, especially with its surprise winners in the Truck and Nationwide races.

As for the drivers ...

Matt Kenseth: He gets this for not only winning his second Daytona 500, but also for all that he had to overcome. He had a fuel problem, his engine spewed water, he lost his tachometer and had radio issues where he could hear his crew but he couldn't communicate with them. And he still won the 500. Can't give him a better grade than A+ or I would. Grade: A+

Dale Earnhardt Jr: You expect Earnhardt to be strong at Daytona. But you don't expect him to be the lone Hendrick car to finish in the top 25. He avoided the issues that plagued teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, running a smart, smooth race and often near the front. A great start to the season for Earnhardt. Now let's see how he carries that forward. Grade: A

Greg Biffle: He was fast throughout Speedweeks, earning the second starting spot and finishing third. He says he wasn't trying to keep Earnhardt from passing Kenseth on the last lap. Biffle said he was trying to find a way around Kenseth but couldn't. He'll take third and head to Phoenix. Grade: A

Denny Hamlin: Ran toward the front a good part of the race and was really strong at pushing but just couldn't get hooked up at the end to make a move. He had a solid Speedweeks in his first race with Darian Grubb as crew chief. It's a good start. Now, they have to keep it going as the series heads to Phoenix this week. Grade: B

Jeff Burton: He finished fifth but considering how far off the pace he was at times last year, this was a great way to start the season even if he left the track disappointed he didn't win. Burton was a factor throughout the race. The question is if this is just for the restrictor-plate races or is he truly back? We'll find out soon enough, but for this night Burton was again a threat. Grade: A

Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard: Strong runs for both as Richard Childress placed three cars in the top 10 (matching Roush Fenway Racing with Kenseth winning, Biffle third and Carl Edwards eighth). Harvick spent the early part of the race at the back, looking to avoid the big accident, and did. In the end, he was up toward the front along with his teammate. It was a good opening stage for Harvick, whom some are projecting as the driver to win the title this year. Grade: B

Danica Patrick: She finished the race. That's what you hope for out of any rookie. But she was also a victim of an early accident. It was one of those things where something happens and drivers are collected. She was one of many collected. Her 10 Cup races are about getting experience. That she did. It wasn't the best type of experience but she'll have to take what she can. Her next Cup race won't come until Darlington in May and will be much harder than what the 500 was. Grade: C

Tony Stewart: He gets a low grade because the expectations were so high that this would be the year he won the Daytona 500 after finishing second in the Budweiser Shootout and winning his qualifying race. Stewart ran a smart race but got caught up in incidents late that ruined his car and forced him to settle for 16th -- his worst finish in Speedweeks. Stewart seems destined to be like Darrell Waltrip, who won his only Daytona 500 in his 17th attempt, or Dale Earnhardt, who won in his 20th attempt. This was Stewart's 14th attempt at winning the 500. Maybe next year. Grade: D

Jimmie Johnson: He never had a chance. Wrecked on the second lap, his race ended early. In fact, he was home before the race ended. Most drivers couldn't fly back to Charlotte after the race because of fog in the Charlotte area, forcing them to spend another night in Daytona. Not the way he wanted to start the season. Grade: Incomplete

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