Philadelphia, PA – By the time Matt Kenseth hoisted the Harley J. Earl Trophy for winning the 2012 Daytona 500, it was past 1 a.m. ET on Tuesday ... yes, Tuesday.
But Kenseth wasn't the only winner in the 36-hour Daytona 500 marathon. The entire fire safety crew at Daytona International Speedway deserved an accolade as well.
First of all, Mother Nature was the winner of the Daytona 500 on Sunday and most of Monday. Persistent rain at Daytona International Speedway forced a 30- hour delay of starting NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season, which made it the first time in the 54-year history of this event that it didn't run on its originally scheduled date. This year's 500-miler at Daytona also became the first to start and finish at night.
The Daytona 500 began with a bang when after the completion of the opening lap, a multi-car crash put Jimmie Johnson and David Ragan out of the race and kept Danica Patrick, defending champion Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch in the garage for a while.
But that crash did not match up to the shock waves generated from a freakish accident that occurred in turn three while the race was under caution on lap 160. After making his pit stop and then getting up to speed to join the field during the caution. Juan Pablo Montoya lost control of his No. 42 Chevrolet and then slammed into the back of a track-drying vehicle.
The truck, with a jet blower attached to it, burst into flames. A fire then erupted in the turn three area where approximately 200 gallons of jet kerosene spilled onto the track surface.
Here's where the next set of winners in this race come in.
Track safety workers immediately arrived on the scene to not only extinguish the fire expeditiously but also come to the aid of the truck driver, Duane Barnes, who needed help in exiting the vehicle.
Barnes, a Michigan International Speedway employee who was on hand for Speedweeks events at Daytona, was transported to a local hospital for precautionary reasons. He was later released.
Fortunately, there were no injuries.
The highly trained safety workers put the fire out quick enough to prevent significant damage to the new track surface and possibly end the race 40 laps (100 miles) from its scheduled 200-lap distance. Dave Blaney, a dark horse to win this event, held the lead at the time of the incident.
NASCAR halted the race for 2 hours, 5 minutes, as personnel engaged in an extensive cleanup effort. The 10-step cleaning process included the applying of quick dry (oil dry) and then watering and soaping of the surface before street bond was applied to make sure any excess stone or anything showing from the fuel leak was covered. The process ended with jet drying.
This was the second time in three years the Daytona 500 had to be stopped for a lengthy period of time due to an unforeseeable incident. The 2010 race was marred by two sizeable potholes that emerged between turns one and two just past the halfway point in the race. NASCAR halted it twice for a total of 2 1/2 hours while personnel repaired the potholes. Later that year, Daytona underwent a $20 million repaving.
"There's been a lot of activity here the last couple years, and we've had our ups and downs," track president Joie Chitwood said during a news conference held shortly after the Daytona 500 concluded. "Tonight validates what we do. We train, we prepare. This is the World Center of Racing, and I'll be honest, if we would have talked about having 200 gallons of burning jet fuel on the racetrack during the event, I'm not sure what the likelihood would have been of completing the race or having a surface that could have been used to race.
"I am really proud of my team and how they responded, and we finished the Daytona 500 the right way, which is under green, and a lot of fans in the stands cheering it on."
One thing is for sure, NASCAR and all of its sanctioned racetracks have learned something in case a similar incident occurs in the future.
Said NASCAR president Mike Helton: "Things do cross your mind, but you would think after 65 years and running all the races that NASCAR has run over the past six-and-a-half decades that you've seen about everything, and a lot of what you've seen gives us the experience that causes us to have the safety summit and the training programs and everything.
"But you do think about, oh, my gosh, if that can happen, what-else-can- happen-type thing, that gives you pause to sit and try to figure out what might else could happen so that you can be as ready for it as you can."
Montoya complained of a mechanical issue during the caution. His crew examined the car during his pit stop and then sent him back on the track.
As he was communicating to his spotter about the vibration while driving on the backstretch, something broke in the car, which caused him to veer sharply to the right before plowing into the track dryer. Montoya walked away from the crash unscathed, but the front end of his car was completely demolished.
Throughout his career in Formula One, Champ Car, IndyCar and NASCAR, Montoya has never experienced an accident quite like this one.
"I've hit a lot of things, but a jet dryer? No," the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and seven-time F1 race winner said.
During the red-flag period, drivers hopped out of their cars and conversed with one another. But Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, had something else in mind.
Keselowski pulled his phone out of his driver-suit pocket and then tweeted photos and commentary of the crash. His popularity significantly increased within hours, as he generated more than 100,000 new followers on Twitter.
How much is he enjoying his fame on Twitter now?
"A lot," he said. "But you know, I'll take the win first." The race win that is.
Keselowski's stunt, though, was not exactly a hit with NASCAR officials.
The sanctioning body released a statement on Tuesday, saying, "NASCAR will not penalize Brad Keselowski for his use of Twitter during (Monday) night's Daytona 500. Nothing we've seen from Keselowski violates any current rules pertaining to the use of social media during races. As such, he won't be penalized. We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others."
In other words, Keselowski, no texting while driving. It's illegal in most states and certainly on all racetracks.