DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Weathering his share of criticism for years, a rain delay of 6 hours, 22 minutes was nothing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to shake off in winning his second Daytona 500 Sunday night.
Earnhardt avoided a series of late-race wrecks, pulled away from Brad Keselowski on the final restart and held off Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon on the final lap.
"Trust me, we're going to have a blast this year," predicted Earnhardt, who picked up his 20th career Sprint Cup victory, then picked up team owner Rick Hendrick during his victory lap, giving his boss a lift to Victory Lane.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport," said Earnhardt, who had won the race in 2004. "I didn't know if I'd ever get to feel that again."
Earnhardt, who led a race-high 54 laps, credited his teammate Gordon for helping him pull away on the final restart.
"Congrats to Junior," Gordon said. "The world is right, right now."
And Earnhardt's closest competitors had nothing but congratulatory words.
"It's significant [when] any Earnhardt wins at Daytona," Hamlin said. "Going into the last year with his crew chief [Steve Letarte], they're going to start making Chase plans early."
"If ever a guy was due," Keselowski said, "it's a guy who finished second here three of the last four years. He's been right there. He's knocked on the door. He runs restrictor plates as an elite driver. Today was his day."
Earnhardt was declared the winner when the caution flag came out for a major accident involving late-race contenders Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards on the final lap. Reed Sorenson, driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing, was also caught up and finished 16th after sitting in fourth place for a restart with 13 laps remaining.
Earnhardt took his first lead after a sequence of pit stops with 69 laps to go. And when the race's biggest wreck occurred, Earnhardt was safely in front of the action.
The "Big One" involved 13 cars, including Danica Patrick, who was sent nose-first into the wall. "What the hell happened?" Patrick asked on her radio.
Replays showed the pinball action beginning with Brian Scott making contact with Kevin Harvick's rear quarter, then shoving Aric Almirola into the outside wall. Patrick ran up the track, head-on into the fence.
"It's a bummer, but that's kind of the excitement of speedway racing," said Patrick, who had led laps 85 and 86.
With more rain looming, Greg Biffle took fuel only under the caution, taking the lead from Earnhardt, who opted for right side tires with 48 laps to go. Those two were leading Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth when pole-sitter Austin Dillon made contact with fellow rookie Kyle Larson, triggering a 10-car wreck.
Dillon led only one lap before surrendering the lead to Hamlin. Dillon was driving the No. 3 Chevrolet, last driven in a Daytona 500 by Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.
Engine problems claimed several big-name drivers, including Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, running his first Sprint Cup race since last August, and Clint Bowyer.
"Just a frustrating day," Bowyer said. "If it was going to blow up, I wish it would have blown up four hours ago."
Hamlin said he didn't know whether to feel pleased or dejected with his second-place showing after taking checkered flags in the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser 150 qualifier. His teammate, Kyle Busch, led 16 of the first 49 laps but was penalized for dragging equipment (an air gun) from his pits, and dropped well back.
The race became "official" at 9:47 p.m. ET with Paul Menard leading Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. By the midway mark, the race had produced 25 lead changes among 14 drivers.