Dale Earnhardt Jr. rules Daytona 500 without win

Dale Earnhardt Jr.DAYTONA BEACH -- The "big one" refers to the crash unlike any other in a given restrictor-plate race fans long for in pack racing. But that crash didn't come during the green flag, but during a caution where Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer at seemingly full speed trying to catch up with the lead lap drivers.

Fortunately, Montoya walked away from the fiery crash and the driver of the jet dryer vehicle was released from Halifax Medical Center with minor injuries. This Daytona 500 had all the drama a race fan could ask for and then some which made the wait for the dryer fuel to be cleaned off worth it.

Like any true drama, the best was saved for last, even if a clear majority of the fans here in the stands and those in front of TVs at home or at sports bars were let down by the last-lap win of Matt Kenseth over the hard-charging Hendrick-powered Chevy wheeled by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Had Earnhardt won, this might have gone down as one of the greatest 500s of the the new century. It had all of the intrigue. The return to pack racing from the boring tandem racing.

The race itself being called off from its traditional Sunday afternoon start until Monday night under the lights of Daytona International Speedway. Jimmy Johnson getting knocked out on lap No. 2. Not that big of a deal. Danica Patrick in her first Daytona 500 start? Ant--climactic. Jeff Gordon blowing an engine. A mild surprise. Tony Stewart getting caught up in a late wreck. He hasn't won the 500 so that too was a mild surprise.

Montoya's fiery wreck? A big surprise and a major bummer since the race was delayed 2 hours, 5 minutes and 29 seconds. This was almost s bad as the year NASCAR had the embarrassment of the big pothole a couple years back.

None of it, though, compares to Dale Earnhardt Jr. challenging for the won on the final lap and trying to end his winless streak at 129 races. Nothing comes close to Junior's popularity with NASCAR fans. The Old Man would be proud, even with Junior now at 130 races without a win. After all, he gave it his all.

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Henry Frederick is publisher of Headline Surfer®, the award-winning 24/7 internet newspaper serving the Daytona Beach-Orlando metro area via HeadlineSurfer.com, launched April 7, 2008, as Florida's first around-the-clock online newspaper. Frederick is among the Sunshine State's most experienced reporters with scores of regional, state & national journalism-industry awards for nearly 100 breaking news & investigative reporting stories in Florida, New York, Massachusetts & Connecticut.
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