Fire and rain mar NASCAR Daytona 500, but Matt Kenseth wins (+video)

Matt Kenseth won NASCAR's Daytona 500, holding off a late charge by Dale Earnhardt early Tuesday morning. Rain and a big fuel fire delayed the Daytona 500  finish until 1 a.m.

By , Reuters

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    Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona Beach, Fla., early Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.
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After lengthy rain delays and a freak fuel fire accident, Matt Kenseth emerged as the Daytona 500 champion on early Tuesday morning, holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr on the final lap to win an incident-packed race under floodlights.

Kenseth, in a Ford, was helped by his Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle, who delayed Earnhardt's charge in the NASCAR season opener before he was eventually passed and crossed the line in third place.

"I have to thank Greg, we worked together really good all day long. He had a really fast car all day as well," Kenseth told reporters.

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The victory was Kenseth's second in the race following his 2009 triumph and was the sixth time in the last eight years that the 500 has ended with a green-white-checker finish that added two extra laps.

After several cars crashed on the 188th lap, damaging the vehicles of pre-race favourites Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, Kenseth grabbed a firm grip on the race.

Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona winner, made a real push to forge ahead on the final lap but could not find the space to get past Kenseth, who had struggled in the early stages of the race.

"We had a lot of problems and almost ended up a lap down. The guys did a great job though, they never panicked and I think they enjoyed the day more because they couldn't hear me on the radio with my radio problems," Kenseth added.

The race was postponed from Sunday due to rain and then for a further seven hours on Monday and finished at almost 1 a.m. local time.

It was the first time NASCAR's premier event was run at night and not on a Sunday afternoon.

FANS REWARDED

A spectacular fire also delayed proceedings when Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya hit a jet-dryer truck, carrying a fuel tank, causing a large explosion and resulting in a two-hour, five minute delay while the course was cleared for the final 40 laps.

But the thousands of fans who sat through all the frustrating delays were rewarded by an exciting race which was still up for grabs until the very end.

The race began in chaotic fashion with a mass collision on just the second lap which ended the hopes of some of the biggest names on the circuit.

Five-times NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and debutant Danica Patrick were involved in the five-car incident.

The accident happened when Elliott Sadler pushed into the back of Johnson, who spun around with chaotic results in the tightly-packed field.

Patrick, just the third woman to compete in the 'Great American Race', was caught in the backwash.

She returned to the garage to repair the damage after her third crash of the week and rejoined on lap 66 to go through the formality of finishing the race.

Johnson, who won the 500 in 2006, was unable to get back on the track and was reduced to the role of a frustrated spectator.

Last year's winner Trevor Bayne, Kurt Busch and David Ragan also went off the track and the latter was seething over the early incident.

"It is ridiculous to sit around this long for the Daytona and on the very first lap for someone to be driving as reckless as whoever caused that, someone had to cause it," Ragan fumed.

"It is just a shame for it to be that early in the biggest race... I can't wait to see who was the bonehead that did that."

(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by John O'Brien)

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