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Kenseth survived wrecks, weather, car problems to win bizarre Daytona 500

This news story was published on February 29, 2012.
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By Jim Utter, McClatchy Newspapers –

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Matt Kenseth has always been known as Mr. Consistency.

Now we know that includes consistency in the face of chaos.

Kenseth’s victory in the early hours of Tuesday morning brought a close to the longest — and perhaps most bizarre — Daytona 500 in NASCAR history.

Nearly two weeks of preparation, practice, qualifying and races led up to what was to be Sunday’s season-opener. Then rain postponed it until mid-day Monday, and then again to Monday night — the first time in the race’s 54-year history it didn’t run on its scheduled day.

That was nothing compared to the race itself, which featured multi-car wrecks that eliminated several contenders in the early going, then was halted by an explosion in Turn 3 on Lap 160 of 200 caused when something broke in Juan Pablo Montoya’s car, sending him careening into a jet dryer clearing debris from the track.

Thankfully, neither Montoya nor the driver of the jet dryer were hurt, but the cleanup of nearly 200 gallons of jet fuel caused a two-hour delay that pushed the finish well after midnight.

Kenseth skillfully dodged three more wrecks and, with the help of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, held off a late charge by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to earn his second win in NASCAR’s biggest race.

Kenseth had problems of his own, though. His radio didn’t work right, his tachometer broke and at one point water was pouring out of his overheating car.

“We had a really fast car all day and overcame a lot of adversity and problems with the car that we figured out,” Kenseth said. “We had a great pit stop at the end that put us into position. It feels great. I wasn’t expecting to win when I woke up this morning.”

That was Monday morning, by the way. It was nearly 2 a.m. Tuesday when Kenseth finally made it to the winner’s news conference.

The long race and long weekend couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for Roush Fenway Racing or Ford, which earned his its second consecutive victory in the 500 (Trevor Bayne won last season).

The win was also the 300th NASCAR victory for RFR, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season.

“This is a special night,” said team co-owner Jack Roush. “It feels great.”

Kenseth and Biffle combined to lead 83 of 202 laps in the race, with Kenseth taking the lead for the final time with 37 laps remaining, holding it through a two-lap overtime brought on by a late-race, eight-car wreck on the frontstretch.

Biffle’s failure to challenge Kenseth for the lead, or try to draft with Earnhardt, sparked cries of “team orders.”

Neither Biffle nor Earnhardt, though, would have any of it.

“I have never met a driver that wanted to finish second!” Biffle said in a post on his Twitter account Tuesday.

Earnhardt never doubted Biffle’s desire.

“This is the Daytona 500, and I don’t know what it pays, but it’s a lot of money,” he said. “I know that they’re teammates, but (Biffle’s) group of guys that specifically work on that car, his crew chief, Greg himself — they work way too hard to decide to run second in a scenario like that.”

Biffle finished third. Denny Hamlin – who led the most laps, 57 — was fourth, and Jeff Burton was fifth.

Kenseth he said had a good idea of what his car was capable of in the 500 after his victory Thursday in a 150-mile qualifying race.

“It took a long time to get to the front but like Thursday once we were in the front it was hard for anyone to get locked on to you,” he said. “My car was one of the faster cars and it was hard for the other cars to stay locked on to me.

“I learned a little on Thursday at the last couple laps there of what to do and what not to do and what this car liked. We had enough speed and once we took the white (flag) I felt sort of okay about it. By the time I got to (Turn) 3, I saw they couldn’t get enough speed mustered up to try to make a move.”

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