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Matt Kenseth-Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Greg Biffle 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500, the finale to a strange, bizarre SpeedWeeks

  Big night, long night. Big fire, but no serious injuries. And the final 100 miles of the Daytona 500 went smoothly, after this jet-dryer truck fire raged in the third turn (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Spooky, yes, spooky.
   Bizarre, stunning, jaw-dropping, confusing….and scary as hell.
   And at the end of these draining two weeks at Daytona, it was Matt Kenseth first to the finish line.

   But his second Daytona 500 victory came in a wild, strangely wild race.
   Greg Biffle played the good teammate, and kept a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. from getting close enough to make any moves on Kenseth in the green-white-checkered overtime finish to a long delayed and long-running 500.
    Earnhardt, though he had no partner, was pressing his two Ford rivals very hard in the final miles. But it looked like Biffle was playing the loyalty card at the end and protecting Kenseth against Earnhardt's ploys.
   While the apparent blocking and other political intrigues may be discussed now on the way from here to Phoenix for next weekend's Sprint Cup tour stop, the strange, bizarre tale of this entire SpeedWeeks will linger for a long, long time.
   The fire-and-rain of SpeedWeeks 2012, which opened nearly two weeks ago in such dramatic fashion, closed out explosively, in the early Tuesday morning hours, nearly six hours after the green:
   Three hours before the final lap, the some 120,000 fans here at Daytona International Speedway saw one of the strangest moments ever in a NASCAR race ever – Juan Pablo Montoya slamming into a jet-dryer-cleanup truck on the backstretch, triggering a huge fire that threatened to end the Daytona 500 one hundred miles short of the finish…with unheralded Dave Blaney leading the race after skipping a final round of routine pit stops. Fortunately no one was seriously injured.


    Matt Kenseth and the Jack Roush guys in Daytona's victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The NASCAR season opener, delayed by rain from Sunday, kicked off at 7:15 p.m. ET Monday…and finally finished at nearly 1 a.m.
   And the game was Kenseth's power versus Earnhardt's hard scrambling.
   "I told Greg I was going to push him on that last restart, and I did," Earnhardt said. "And he was waiting and waiting.
   "I thought he was going to try something on the backstretch, but nothing materialized. So I waited as long as I could for him to do something, and then I just tried something myself."
   That was an outside pass by Biffle off the fourth turn, and Earnhardt did get by Biffle for second but couldn't catch Kenseth, who won by three lengths.
   So was it a matter of teammates Kenseth and Biffle working together, while rival Earnhardt had no partner?
   "It was just what would give us both the best finish," Kenseth said. "It just turned out to be whoever was in front at the end."
   Biffle said he tried to get something going on the backstretch the last lap. But he said he didn't have enough power: "It was like Matt had more motor at the end, we couldn't catch him. We needed a run, and we didn't have that gap. I needed to maybe drag the brake and get back to Junior."

Matt Kenseth at the line, ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) and Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    It was certainly no surprise that the Kenseth and Biffle Fords were the most powerful on the track. And teammate Carl Edwards might well have been there too, but he was penalized to the rear of the field late for his crew tearing off the windshield cover under a red flag. And Edwards never got back up there.
    "The Roush cars were strong all week, but I didn't realize just how strong until I got up there with about 60 laps to go," Earnhardt said. "I could get up to them, but I couldn't get around them."
   Did Biffle block to protect Kenseth?
   Earnhardt said no way. "Greg and his guys work way too hard, and this is the Daytona 500, for him to settle for second, that's not what he would do."
    The new rules for this race?
   "There really wasn't much action, so I don't know how these new rules really worked," Earnhardt said. "The finish was quite exciting, I thought. I liked the package; I can definitely do more on my own like this. Now I do some help to be able to win…."

  Until that green-white-checkered finish, the story of the night was a hot one, the huge jet fire.
   "It just seems like NASCAR can't catch a break," Earnhardt said. "We're just trying to put on a good show, and things happen…."


The remains of Juan Pablo Montoya's car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The driver of the truck, Duane Barnes, from Michigan International Speedway, was uninjured but shaken in the incident and taken to Halifax Medical Central for observation. Montoya was checked and released at the infield hospital.
   The question hanging for everyone, including NASCAR executives and the track promoters and the some 120,000 fans, was would the asphalt be good enough for more racing.
   However, after more than an hour and a half of repairs, NASCAR president Mike Helton said the track was in good enough condition to finish the race.
   And drivers climbed back in their cars, to finish the first prime-time Monday night running of stock car racing's biggest event.
   Drivers however were not allowed to check out the asphalt themselves, for some reason.

   At that point the race was pretty much a Biffle and Denny Hamlin show. Biffle, who started on the front row, and Hamlin, who had struggled through most of SpeedWeeks, dominated the action, in what was a remarkably calm stretch after a week of hard crashes.
   David Stremme's blown engine brought out the yellow that led to the Montoya crash. During that round of routine stops the leaders packed in enough fuel to make it about three or four laps past the official 200-lap mark, figuring on needing padding for any green-white-checkered overtime sprint. And crews were tell drivers to save fuel.

     The Daytona 500 under the lights, prime time...and now the ratings (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The 500 had been running very smoothly and uneventfully for some two hours – after a big first lap crash -- when the crisis fire occurred.
   And you just thought it was 'strange' when Neil Bonnett hit a deer on the track at Pocono back when….
   The fiery drama unfolded like this:
   The caution was already out and teams were making standard pit stops.
   Montoya had a problem with his rear end, and after a slow stop, he was behind the pack and running fast to catch up.
   As Montoya roared down the straight toward the third turn, well on the inside, while several jet-cleanup trucks were up high and slowly blowing debris from the track, Montoya's car suddenly broke and went skidding sideways.
   Montoya's car slammed hard into the jet truck, igniting its 200 gallons of kerosene.
   The ensuing fire burned uncontrollably for several minutes while half a dozen safety crews poured foam on it.
   Just two years ago, in virtually the same part of the track, a huge pothole developed and forced a two-hour red-flag delay in the 500. That led track owners to spend $20 million on a major repaving project.


A very nice crowd returned for the Monday night/Tuesday morning Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   With the fire there was the question of how much damage the asphalt itself might have suffered.
   "The track held up well," Earnhardt said. "When we saw the fire it looked like something was going to be tragic….and fortunately it wasn't."
   Helton said gouges were the only obvious issue.
   The drama for Blaney was considerable. He's been around NASCAR for years, a well known sprint racer and journeyman Sprint Cup racer, with 398 career starts.
   But Blaney had barely made this 500 field -- though he finished 32nd in the standings last season, car owner Tommy Baldwin dealt away those points – and that guaranteed Daytona 500 starting spot -- to rookie Danica Patrick.
   For Montoya, it was, well, strange.  
   "My foot hurts, but I'm okay," Montoya said. "For as big of a hit that was, I'm pretty good to be honest.
   "It burned the helmet and everything.
    "I thought 'I'm actually hitting the jet, and it's not going to be fun.'
    "Before I got there I was thinking 'This thing is going to be on fire pretty bad’ and it was
    "I am always really quick to get out of the car. In open-wheel they always check you at the beginning of the year and you have a certain time you have to get out. You really learn to get out of the car fast.
   "Something broke in the rear of the car, and the car just spun into the jet dryer.
    "I'd felt a vibration and come in. They looked at everything, and everything was okay, and I still told them 'I think there is something broken.' And I was coming back into the pits and the car just spun by itself.
   "I got on the brakes, and while I was telling the spotter to have a look on how the rear was moving, the car just turned right."
    In the ambulance ride to the infield hospital Montoya and Barnes rode together. "He was pretty scared, but he looked okay," Montoya said.
    "I have hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer? I mean no."

 Daytona crews repairing the site of the fiery crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Greg Biffle choked. What he

Greg Biffle choked. What he did, or should I say didn't do was ridiculous. I don't care what mode of plate racing we are in. The old slingshot manuever, pack racing, or the two car push. Two cars are always faster than one, we all know that. Biffle had a fast car, and one of the best in the business behind him. A primed to win Dale Earnhardt Jr had a hell of a fast car. Finally, Dale knew it was time to go, so he went on his own, and if he had a little more time, probably could have caught and passed Kenseth. A totally baffling finish. No racing.

I have always seen Biffle as a lightweight in a great car, and the last lap at Daytona was a perfect example of why. Nice guy, really good driver, but unless he had some orders that turned his car into a company car on that last lap at Daytona, he blew it. He had a chance to win, and he squandered it away, taking Dale Jr's chance to win with it.

I am annoyed about it because Dale Jr is my number one driver, and it should have been his night. He avoided all the wrecks and had a car that could win, but he was blocked by a bonehead move by an indecisive Greg Biffle. Biffle knew he screwed up, and so did Junior, but he was kind to Greg in his post race comments.

So much for the Daytona 500, I'm just glad that Fireball Montoya, and the jet dryer truck driver are ok.

i have to admit i dont

i have to admit i dont understand what greg was thinking those last few laps, unless it was 'dont let junior win, no matter what.'
after thursday's dual with matt, the biff's play in the 500 was sooo strange. dont buy that he didnt have enough engine to challenge matt. that's bull imho. something's fishy in all this. and what aggravates me even more is that there are no journalists in this sport raising any questions.
and i agree that it was junior's night. if JJ and JG hadn't fallen out, Junior would have won that race.

I'm trying to figga

I'm trying to figga out....
What's the rush to get to Phoenix?

Maybe NASCAR for 2013 should schedule the 500, come hell or high water, Super Bowl or not, Sunday (day) before President's Day, (start race at 12:30pm est, Super Bowl doesn't start traditionally until 6:00pm; race over by then, on paper anyway) if rainout (day) run it at night, if possible or race on the President's Day holiday. If that day rains out, you have the whole week to get it end and the Phoenix race move it up a week. In other words, logistically, give yourself an extra week after the 500 to start the season. It was different when Rockingham was the second race of the year, it's was down the road from Charlotte.

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