2014 Daytona 500: Winners and Losers from NASCAR's Premier Race

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

2014 Daytona 500: Winners and Losers from NASCAR's Premier Race

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    Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    The 56th running of the Daytona 500 began early in the afternoon and ended as midnight approached in the Eastern time zone.

    It included a record rain delay of six hours, 22 minutes, several multi-car wrecks that altered the nights of possible contenders and, in the end, an epic win by the most popular driver in NASCAR.

    But while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the biggest winner on this day that stretched late into the night, he wasn't the only one who could feel good about what transpired. Here, then, is a composite of the winners and losers from NASCAR's most prestigious event.

Loser: Martin Truex Jr.

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    What had been a promising Speedweeks began to go sour for Martin Truex Jr. when he wrecked his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet on the last lap of his Duel qualifying race last Thursday.

    That negated the front-row starting spot he thought he secured in an earlier qualifying run, when he turned the second-fastest lap during pole qualifying, and sent him to the rear of the field to start Sunday's race in a backup car.

    The backup car was fast, and Truex was making his way toward the front when the engine suddenly blew on Lap 32, ending his day.

Winner: Air Titan

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    Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    Without the Air Titan, there would have been no Daytona 500 on Sunday.

    It would have been run eventually, but it wouldn't have been Sunday. For the uninitiated, the Air Titan is NASCAR's monstrous new track-drying system. Introduced last year, it supposedly dries a track like the 2.5-mile superspeedway at Daytona up to 80 percent faster than the old system that solely employed jet dryers.

    The jet dryers are still used, but now they're reduced to a role akin to a relief pitcher in baseball who does mop-up work. The Titan system does the heavy lifting, and it was a hero at the end of what turned out to be the longest rain delay in Daytona 500 history Sunday: six hours, 22 minutes.

    Without the Air Titan, it would have been longer and the race most likely would have had to be run on Monday.

Loser: Kyle Larson

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    Much was made of rookie Kyle Larson's Daytona 500 debut, but it failed to go the way he had hoped.

    Larson grazed the outside wall on the very first lap. He subsequently had a right front tire go down in the No. 42 Chevrolet he's driving this year for Chip Ganassi Racing and hit the wall again two laps later, forcing him to come in for an early and unscheduled pit stop that put him a lap down.

    He later had a right rear tire go flat, causing him to spin into the infield grass and fall further behind. Even though he subsequently caught a couple of breaks to get back on the lead lap, more trouble loomed ahead.

    Fellow rookie Austin Dillon eventually turned Larson from behind, triggering a seven-car wreck with 39 laps to go that ended Larson's night for good.

Winner: Steve Letarte

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Steve Letarte (pictured above), the crew chief for race-winning driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and one of the nicest guys in the Sprint Cup garage, made all the right calls on top of the No. 88 Chevrolet's pit box.

    It was the biggest win of Letarte's career and gets his final season as Earnhardt's crew chief off to a glorious start. Letarte announced earlier that he would be leaving his current job to become a NASCAR color analyst on NBC's race broadcasts beginning next season. 

    "Obviously, Steve knows what he is doing. He puts great people around us and builds great race cars," a jubilant Earnhardt told Fox Sports of Letarte in a television interview in Victory Lane. 

Loser: Austin Dillon

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    David Graham/Associated Press

    Austin Dillon was the toast of NASCAR after winning the pole in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet that is making its return to NASCAR's premier national touring series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death in a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.

    But after leading the first lap of Sunday's race, at one point running the fastest lap of any car on the night at 204.3 miles per hour, the Cup rookie had an up-and-down night and didn't make many friends.

    Yes, he finished ninth and obviously was pleased with the top-10 finish. But he blatantly wrecked two other cars along the way—including his own RCR teammate, Ryan Newman, in one incident and fellow rookie Kyle Larson in another.

    That was disturbing and put a damper on an otherwise great Speedweeks.

Winner: Denny Hamlin

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (pictured above) was a rocket throughout Speedweeks.

    Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, then won his Duel qualifying race in the run-up to the 500. He looked as if he might win the Great American Race too, but he could not catch Earnhardt Jr. and eventually had to settle for second.

    It still was a solid start to his season, as he continues to make up for time lost last season when he missed five races because of a back injury and then drove in pain for months after attempting a return.

Loser: Tony Stewart

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    In the script Tony Stewart no doubt had written in his mind, this was supposed to mark his triumphant return to NASCAR in grand style after missing much of last season with a broken leg injury suffered in a sprint car accident last August.

    Instead, his No. 14 Chevrolet was in the garage by Lap 140 because of what appeared to be a fuel-pump issue. By the time the necessary repairs were made and he returned to the track, he was 27 laps down and a good finish was nothing more than a shattered dream.

    Suffice it to say it wasn't close to the return Stewart wanted or had envisioned.

Winner: Hendrick Motorsports

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Rick Hendrick (pictured above with Dale Earnhardt Jr.), owner of Hendrick Motorsports, was all smiles after three of his cars finished in the top five.

    Not only did Earnhardt win, but Jeff Gordon finished fourth. Defending race champion Jimmie Johnson, who also is defending series champion, placed fifth.

    That's a great sign for Hendrick's organization, but a sobering one for the rest of the Sprint Cup competition. You never want to be playing catchup to a Hendrick race team this early in the season; now most of the others will be forced to do so with three Hendrick teams.

Loser: The Daytona Infield Grass

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    The grass in the infield at Daytona International Speedway took a beating on Sunday—first from the relentless rain and later from wrecking cars that repeatedly ran through it, sending chunks of mud and turf flying every which way.

    The end result: plenty of work for the DIS grounds crew come Monday morning.

    In all seriousness, the swampy infield did pose problems for the drivers. If they even caught the edge of the grass while trying to avoid trouble, it spelled greater disaster.

Winner: Brad Keselowski

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Brad Keselowski's No. 2 Penske Racing Ford came home in third, giving the 2012 series champion hope that this season will be much better than his last one.

    Keselowski told Fox Sports in a television interview during the rain delay that he thought he had a car that could win. It didn't win, but it did contend for the win. He even led 13 laps.

    Of course, Keselowski must now build on that. He finished fourth in the 500 last year but soon found himself mired in an up-and-down season that ultimately left him on the outside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup and unable to defend his 2012 title over the final 10 races.

Losers: Those Who Wrecked (or Got Wrecked)

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    There were a number of multi-car accidents that ended the night early for the likes of Danica Patrick, Michael Waltrip (pictured above), Ryan Newman and others.

    The first big wreck occurred on Lap 146 and included 13 cars. The race cars of Kevin Harvick and Brian Scott appeared to touch, sending Scott up the track and into the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford of Aric Almirola. When Almirola shot back across the race track, he collected a whole mess of additional race cars in his wake.

    Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet was one of them. "What the hell just happened?," she asked on her team radio.

    The last wreck occurred behind the leaders as they raced to the checkered flag and involved Harvick, Kyle Busch and a host of others.  

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    It had been a full decade since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 and 57 races since he won anywhere at all in NASCAR's top series.

    Perhaps that is why he kept saying in post-race interviews that winning the race Sunday for the second time in his career was even sweeter than when he won it the first time. The first time, it seemed to come easy, and he surely thought there would be plenty more wins to follow at Daytona and elsewhere.

    But now, after going winless in four of the last five seasons, Earnhardt knows precisely how hard it is to win anywhere on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, let alone in its biggest race. The Sporting News' Jeff Owens noted that Earnhardt could barely stay in his seat after finishing first. 

    "Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, other than winning the championship," Earnhardt said after the race. "I didn't know if I would ever get the chance to feel this again."