This is Junior's second Daytona 500 win.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—In a race that started in broad daylight and ended 42 minutes before midnight, and with a swatch of tape covering part of his grille, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the rain-interrupted 56th running of the Daytona 500 Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt was a car-length ahead of Denny Hamlin when NASCAR threw the seventh caution of the race a split second before Earnhardt crossed the finish line to win the Great American Race for the second time in his career.
Under NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, Earnhardt's 20th career Sprint Cup Series victory almost assuredly locks him into the 10-race postseason playoff, set to start at Chicagoland Speedway in September.
Hamlin came home second as the race ended under caution, with Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson running third through fifth, respectively.
On the inside of a three-wide trio with Brian Scott and Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick drifted up the track and clipped Brian Scott's Chevrolet, sending Scott into Almirola's Ford and turning it sideways.
Almirola hit Danica Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet, which shot nose-first into the outside wall in the tri-oval, destroying the car. The No. 3 Chevy of polesitter Austin Dillon also sustained damage but remained on the lead lap.
Dillon's Richard Childress Racing teammate, Paul Menard, wasn't as fortunate. His No. 27 Chevy, which had led 29 laps, was heavily damaged and lost 14 laps as his team worked feverishly to repair it.
"What the hell happened?" Patrick said, as she slid to a stop in the soggy infield grass.
Sixteen laps after the first major incident of the race, Dillon's Chevrolet got loose and tapped the No. 42 of fellow rookie Kyle Larson, triggering an 11-car wreck that slowed the race. At Lap 184, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne slammed into the outside wall on the backstretch to cause the fifth caution of the race.
On Lap 194, contact between Dillon and the No. 31 Chevrolet of RCR teammate Ryan Newman ignited a seven-car wreck in Turn 3 that set up the wild finish. Earnhardt, who was in the lead, ran over the swatch of Bear Bond (tape) from Newman's car under the yellow and tried in vain to remove the tape by driving within inches of the pace car.
First out of the race was Martin Truex Jr., whose luck turned from bad to worse on Sunday. With his primary car destroyed in a last-lap wreck in Thursday night's Budwesier Duel at Daytona, Truex had to give up his second-place starting position and take the green flag from the rear of the field in a backup car.
On Lap 32, Truex's engine expired after the oil pump belt dislodged, forcing an early exit from a race the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet thought he had a chance to win.
"The car was super-fast today, and I went to bed last night thinking that this was my best shot ever to win the Daytona 500 and really felt that way, even today," Truex said. "The car was just so good, and we were just riding around and biding our time, being patient and trying to get to the end of this thing.
"Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be."
It wasn't meant to be for Tony Stewart or Clint Bowyer either.
Stewart's took his No. 14 Chevrolet to the garage with a fuel pressure problem after completing 118 laps, frustrated in his 16th fruitless attempt to win the Daytona 500. Bowyer's engine expired after 127 laps.
Stewart ended the race in 35th, 26 laps down.
Reid Spencer NASCAR Wire Service