CUP: 10 Things We Learned At Daytona 500

The 2012 Daytona 500 was nothing short of epic.

With the 54th running of the Great American Race under the lights in prime time, there was no doubt that NASCAR would put on a show, but no one — other than the racing gods — could have scripted the outcome that ended well after midnight Monday.

The wrecks started on Lap 2 when Elliott Sadler triggered a pileup that collected the sport’s newly crowned princess Danica Patrick, along with five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and defending 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Even service trucks weren’t immune from the action, as worker Duane Barnes discovered on Lap 160 when Juan Pablo Montoya slid into his jet dryer, igniting a 200-gallon firework of jet fuel.

But after a six-hour motorsports marathon, Matt Kenseth stood victorious. It was the same Kenseth who delivered Jack Roush his first Sprint Cup Championship in 2003, the same Kenseth who collected the Harley J. Earl hardware in not one but two Daytona 500s, and the same Kenseth who has been loyal to RFR during good times and bad. Did we mention that this is a contract year for the soon-to-be-40-year-old who, with a Cup title and 22 victories, should be a shoo-in for the NASCAR Hall of Fame?

Kenseth has emerged as one of the sport’s most popular drivers with his peers and fans alike by remaining humorous, unpretentious and drama-free. And in his 13th season on the Cup tour, Kenseth is still refreshing because he’s not in NASCAR for the glory — he simply wants to win. So it’s not surprising that Kenseth has been a Chase contender for all but one season since the program’s inception and will be again in 2012.

In addition to Kenseth setting the pace for Speedweeks, here are 10 additional storylines from Daytona and things to keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks:

1. READY FOR PRIME TIME: Who knew that running the Great American Race on a Monday night would garner FOX’s largest audience (36.5 million total viewers) for a Daytona 500? The show also earned the second-largest number of viewers for the event since 2006, when 37 million viewers were recorded to have watched the 500 on NBC. FOX also topped the 18 to 49 adult segment Monday night as well.

2. JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT: Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. started off the season second in points in 2010 after his runner–up performance to Jamie McMurray. But two years ago, Earnhardt didn’t have his secret weapon, Steve Letarte. Who knows where Earnhardt would be right now had Letarte been his crew chief sooner in the Hendrick Motorsports acclimation process? So much for crying in your Budweiser, Junior Nation. There’s no time like the present, and this pair is clicking right now. As Earnhardt told reporters Tuesday morning, “I’m very happy. I’m really in a good place, I’m not frustrated at all, I promise. I’m in a great mood . . . (but) you don’t want to give anyone the impression that you are fine running second, because I’m not.” Earnhardt, who turns 38 in October, is well aware of the missed opportunities from 2011. He and Letarte won’t let those chances slip away this year.

3. IT’S A DANICA WORLD: If the TV ratings for Saturday’s Nationwide race are any indication of Danica Patrick’s influence on NASCAR, there’s nobody in the sport who won’t welcome her with open arms. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on her side at Daytona beyond her dramatic pole-winning performance in Nationwide qualifying. In three races, Patrick endured three wrecks — though not of her making. While there’s no getting around the green race car phobia, hopefully her teammates will start gathering four-leaf clovers for their protégé before Phoenix.

4. ON TRACK: Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III showed grace under pressure while continuing his family’s tradition of delivering a “thrill show” to fans during Speedweeks. Yes, both NASCAR and DIS worked together to ensure that, despite fire and rain, fans were able to enjoy the 54th running of the Daytona 500 in its entirety Monday night — and Tuesday morning. Certainly, NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. were better prepared to deal with the unforeseeable damage and learned a lesson in problem solving from the 2010 pothole disaster.

5. NO CHASE FOR YOU!: Jimmie Johnson earned just two points for Monday’s 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 — his worse career showing in the event. If that wasn’t enough of a point deficit, let’s see what NASCAR has in store for the No. 48 Lowe’s team once penalties are announced for crew chief Chad Knaus’ latest innovations with the car’s C-Posts in pre-race inspection. While Johnson’s men are known for their ability to recover from nearly any adversity, Knaus’ most recent handywork might be too much to overcome this time. Hope that Larry Carter can bring his A-game to the team should he be selected to fill in as crew chief during Knaus’ vacation.

6. GOT TWITTER?: Brad Keselowski does. And he used it to his advantage during the red-flagged portion of the Daytona 500 on Monday night to double his followers to 213,000 — and counting — and increase the exposure of NASCAR throughout the Twitterverse. While track officials repaired the fire-damaged surface, Keselowski grabbed his phone and began interacting with fans. Although some questioned whether this practice violated NASCAR policy, vice president Steve O’Donnell (@odsteve) later tweeted: "Just confirming, not sure where rumors came from-no penalties for Brad, thought he was awesome during the red flag!" We did, too.

7. FLYING SOLO: For the pundits who believed a two-car draft would win the Daytona 500, the final two laps proved otherwise. Second-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running third before taking the white flag as he waited for Greg Biffle, who was drafting with Matt Kenseth, to make his move. When Biffle stayed the course, Earnhardt pulled out coming off the last corner, but it was too late to catch Kenseth.

8. DISAPPOINTED DEBUTANTES: It wasn’t much of a coming-out party for drivers paired with new teams — and for some, the circumstances were wacky and way out of their own control. Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and David Ragan’s Daytona hopes were destroyed on Lap 2 as Elliott Sadler triggered the first wreck of the day. AJ Allmendinger had nowhere to go when the wheel rolled off of Ryan Newman’s car on pit road. Clint Bowyer was the luckiest of the bunch. Despite his crew running him out of gas, Bowyer was able to recover and finish the race 11th on the lead lap with his new teammate Mark Martin one position ahead in 10th.

9. CRYING FOUL: The irony of the following comment is too good to pass on. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was aghast when Marcos Ambrose dumped two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte. Here’s the radio exchange during the incident a little more than 90 minutes into the event:

Earnhardt: "Oh man, who would turn the Iceman around?"

Steve Letarte: "That would be the Tasmanian Devil."

Certainly, most hardcore fans also remember that Earnhardt’s father would also dump Texas Terry — but only on a short track.

10. PENSKE'S BEST: There’s a reason why Roger Penske is one of the most respected businessmen and in a league of his own among race team owners — he’s a great motivator of people. Last week, Penske celebrated his 75th birthday. What’s been the captain’s ultimate accomplishment in racing? “Motorsports has turned out to be the common thread through all our businesses that we’re in, and I think that motivates our people,” Penske said. “They get that winning attitude, and certainly the execution on race day shows the teamwork and also the integrity of what we have to do in the sport, and that ties together with our businesses. Every time we’re in the winner’s circle, it’s a special moment but again, you’re always waiting for the next one. To me, it’s all about the people we’ve been able to raise through the sport and tie them into the business. It’s all about the human capital.”