In what will go down as the only Daytona 500 to get its start on Sunday and finally end early on a Tuesday morning, over a day and a half later, Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards will claim that his loss in NASCAR's season-opening signature race was to his Roush-Fenway Racing team's gain, and for that he couldn't be happier than if he had won.
The No. 99 blue-and-white Chevrolet piloted by Edwards started from the pole, his first in 14 previous starts at Daytona International Speedway, including seven Daytona 500s, but didn't hold on for even one lap before surrendering the lead. From there, the Columbia, Mo., native slowly slid back into the pack. Just past the midway-point in the 200-lap race, Edwards reported to his pit crew that his fuel pressure appeared to be fluctuating. His track position at that point in the race was 21st, and he would drop back even further as the race continued.
Ironically, the other driver in the 43-car Daytona 500 field with Kansas City-area connections, Clint Bowyer, actually did run out of gas, bringing out the sixth caution flag of the race when his car came to a stop in Turn 2 on lap 129. Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., was running fifth several laps earlier. All of the race teams are in the process of getting familiarized with the fuel consumption particulars associated with new fuel-injected engines that have been introduced this season
With the field slowed by the seventh caution of the evening, one the most bizarre events you will ever see in a major car race occurred when Juan Montoya's No. 42 Target Chevrolet shockingly spun out of control during the caution and slid across the track on the backstretch and full force into a jet dryer along the outside wall of the track with approximately 200 gallons of jet fuel and diesel fuel on board. The collision sparked a massive fireball that sent flames shooting high into the night air and clear across the track.
The race was red-flagged at this point, and a delay of just over two hours ensued while track emergency crews put out the fire, cleared off the badly damaged vehicles and cleaned and examined the track for any structural damage. Fortunately, both Montoya and the operator of the jet dryer escaped the fire and smoke-covered accident scene without serious injury.
When the race finally did resume, after midnight Eastern time, it took another hour and a green-white-checkered sprint to the finish line to bring the 54th running of the Great American Race to a stirring and sleepy-eyed conclusion.
It was near 1 a.m. on the East Coast when Edwards' teammate at Roush-Fenway Racing, Matt Kenseth, a previous winner of the Daytona 500 (2009), crossed the finish line ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a third Roush-Fenway driver, Greg Biffle.
What many NASCAR fans thought might be another classic showdown, like in last season's Chase for the Cup, between reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and Edwards, with both drivers starting out in the top three in the race lineup, turned out to be anything but. Neither driver was much of a factor the entire race In fact Edwards spent a good part of the evening viewing most of the field through his front windshield, and to wind up eighth in the final race result should be considered a major victory from what things looked like with just 40 laps, or 100 miles, left to go.
Despite his position midway back in the pack when the race was stopped, Edwards told a Fox Network track reporter that he liked the way the No. 99 car was running and he felt confident he could work his way up through the traffic in front of him and get back among the leaders before the race was over. What the Missouri-native didn't know at the time was that he would have to make his charge from the very back of the cars on the leap lap.
The No. 99 car incurred a penalty because Edwards crew chief, Pierre Kuettel, removed a windshield tear-off during the lengthy race stoppage, which is disallowed under NASCAR rules. Edwards' teammate Biffle unknowingly performed the same act and was hit with the same penalty.
"I asked PK (Kuettel) if we could pull the tear-off, and he said, ‘Yes,'" Edwards said after the race. "And as soon as he pulled it, the NASCAR official started saying a lot of things. It wasn't good.
"I think after that caution (at lap 158, right before Montoya's fiery collision with the jet dryer) we were ready to go hard, and then we had that penalty and we had to go back," he said. "That kind of screwed up our strategy, but that's OK. You can never say shoulda, woulda...because we very well could be wrecked."
Edwards literally ran into more trouble with just 11 laps to go. The 99 car was involved in a multicar accident with former Daytona 500 winner and fellow Missourian Jamie McMurray (from Joplin), Brad Keselowski, Regan Smith and Aric Almirola. This late-race mishap may have actually helped Edwards, though.
After the restart on lap 194, Edwards had worked his way up to 12th, but he was struggling. When another multicar wreck occurred on lap 196, in practically the same location as the one Edwards was involved in several laps before, he was ready to take full advantage.
"We got back up to eighth with a little bit of a torn-up car," Edwards said in his post-race remarks. But that's not what last season's Sprint Cup runner-up wanted to talk about. He was more excited about how his Roush-Fenway team did, and especially the win by Kenseth and the No. 17 car.
"I'm just really glad Matt ended up in Victory Lane...that's huge for Roush-Fenway, for Ford, for Best Buy (Kenseth's lead sponsor)," he said. "That's as big as it gets, and it ended up OK for us, too. For everything we went through, with the penalties and tearing the nose off of it, to finish eighth is huge."
Bowyer finished just outside of the top 10 in 11th. His best finish in the Daytona 500, NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, was fourth place (in both 2010 and 2009).
So it's hurriedly off to the Valley of the Sun and Phoenix International Raceway for race No. 2 of 36 on the 2012 Sprint Cup schedule, the Subway Fresh-Fit 500 on Sunday.
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