The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season's marquee event kicked off right on time Sunday afternoon, but it did not get too far before rain halted the proceedings. The interruption saw severe weather roll through Daytona International Speedway, causing some to remark that Kyle Busch caused a tornado when he took the lead. After more than six hours halted, however, it was time to run again. Thanks to the new Titan Air track drying system, the track was quickly dried and it was back to racing to decide this year's Daytona 500 champion.
The remainder of the race was run in prime time, under the lights, creating a great show. Since the heat of the afternoon had dissipated, and the track was washed clean by the heavy rain, handling was much better than the early laps, and drivers felt comfortable running three wide throughout the pack. Despite more competition the expected contenders were out front. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the strongest car in the final miles, and he was rarely challenged for the lead. He stood his ground and carried it all the way home to nab his second Daytona 500 win - a decade after his first - securing a perfect start to this season's Chase for the Championship. The series now heads to Phoenix International Raceway for next week's edition.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt ended a 55-race losing skid on the sport's biggest stage Sunday evening. By the time the checkered flag waved Earnhardt had led the most laps, nearly double the next closest driver, Paul Menard. While Earnhardt is usually the fan favorite, his restrictor-plate efforts have waned since his last Daytona win. The No. 88 started making progress again the last two seasons, and many wondered if this would be his year. The team prepared well, raced well throughout the last two weeks and worked strategically to be in a position to win. Earnhardt has top-5 finishes in the last two Phoenix races and now caries the confidence knowing he is virtually assured a spot in the new Chase format.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin almost became the first driver to pull off the sweep at Daytona, winning the Sprint Unlimited, his Duel and the Daytona 500, coming agonizingly close. After winning the first two legs, he finished second Sunday night in the big race, narrowly missing etching his name into history books. Hamlin instead can walk away from Daytona knowing that he has one of the strongest machines in the garage, capable of winning anytime it hits the track. His win and three top-5s in his last five Phoenix tries make him a contender again this week. Fantasy owners should be excited about the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers scoring plenty of wins this season, and Hamlin looks likely to be the first to do so in a points race.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick did exactly what we've come to expect of him at Daytona despite being with a new team. He held station quietly, ticking off miles and laps one by one, until it was time to move forward and fight for the win. He ran in the top five in the final laps, only falling back in the chaos that ensued in the run to the finish line. Harvick has the best recent record at Phoenix. His 7.2 average finish was helped by two wins and three top-5s in the last five races there, and he only failed to finish on the lead lap once in that time. Last week's performance and his Phoenix record make him a solid fantasy option this week.
Brad Keselowski - An 8.8 average finish in his last five Phoenix tries puts Keselowski toward the front of fantasy options this week. His Daytona effort puts even more confidence behind that statement. At Phoenix he scored two top-5s and three top-10 finishes his last five races and should be a driver to be reckoned with this week. His Daytona run saw him pick up a top-5 finish and maybe, with a few different moves, he might have challenged for the win. The No. 2 car rolled off the truck in Daytona ready to contend, and that could be a signal for the remainder of the 2014 season that Keselowski is back from his championship hangover and itching to return to the top.
Austin Dillon - There was plenty of pressure on rookie Dillon last week at Daytona, not least of which was that he is entering his rookie season in Sprint Cup on one of the top teams. What's more, he was sporting the No. 3's return to Sprint Cup, and he had perfect conditions to wilt under pressure. This driver didn't do that, though. Instead, he put his machine on pole position, raced smartly in his Duel and masterminded a Daytona top-10 finish despite contact and adversity. The rookie demonstrated the experience and confidence of a veteran. His two top-5 finishes in his last four Nationwide starts at Phoenix help him to a 4.8 average finish and make him worthy of fantasy consideration this week.
Kyle Larson - His first Daytona 500 didn't start off the way Larson had hoped. Larson was the first car to encounter trouble, scraping the wall and eventually cutting a tire before having to pit for repairs. The afternoon only got worse when a short time later he lost a rear tire and spun, bringing out the first caution of the race. Sadly, he was involved in yet another crash before the distance was complete. He did not score a top finish in either of his two Nationwide starts at Phoenix and finished 32nd after a crash in one. Larson could challenge for Rookie of the Year honors, but he has this adversity to overcome before realizing that potential.
Martin Truex Jr. - After qualifying on the front row for last week's Daytona 500, luck simply was not with Truex. He decided to race hard in his qualifying duel, and the result was getting caught in a last-lap crash that forced him into a backup car and to the back of the field. After relinquishing his second-place start he worked his way forward in the early laps Sunday, but the day would not be his. With less than 40 laps in the books, the motor in Truex's Furniture Row Racing car gave up and belched smoke, signaling the end of the day for the No. 78. He does have two top-10 finishes in the last five Phoenix races, but his average finish in that period is a paltry 22.8.
Kasey Kahne - While Kahne carries a Phoenix win from 2011 into this weekend's Phoenix race, he will have to overcome the disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Kahne had a strong car, as all of the Hendrick Motorsports teammates demonstrated, but he couldn't survive to challenge on the last lap. Kahne ended Sunday night's race eight laps behind the leader in 31st position after getting caught in one of the race's late crashes. He led two laps in the race, and certainly didn't achieve the team's Daytona potential. Still, Kahne has three top-5 finishes in his last five Phoenix starts, but can he turn things around in just seven days?
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer was perhaps the most entertaining driver during the six-hour rain delay. He opened a discussion with his Twitter followers, even poking fun at the replay of the 2013 race, congratulating Jimmie Johnson for winning as if it had just happened. Unfortunately, once action finally resumed after the agonizing wait, his car made just another 90 laps before expiring. His disappointment was palpable, and said he wished the car would have given up earlier so he could have watched from home. It was a disappointing start for Bowyer, who has an average finish of 18.8 in the last five Phoenix races. The No. 15 is another team that will work to put last week behind it and start fresh at Phoenix.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The Roush Fenway Racing cars were largely quiet during the build up to Sunday's Daytona 500. The teammates didn't show up as a dominant force, certainly not compared to the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing. But they put on a show Sunday. The newest driver in that stable had perhaps the race's most impressive move. With just one circuit remaining in the race, Stenhouse made a move that most veterans would be proud of, shuffling a charging Kyle Busch back and moving himself forward. That impressive pass put Stenhouse in the seventh finishing position, while Busch was mired in a wreck deeper in the pack and finished 17th. It was a confident and mature move from a young up-and-comer.