DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is quick to praise the efforts of crew chief Steve Letarte in reviving his career, and that is why Earnhardt is determined to make his final season with Letarte a memorable one.
It certainly started off that way Sunday night in the rain-delayed Daytona 500, as Earnhardt was able to hold onto the lead despite repeated efforts by driver after driver, scoring his second victory in the Great American Race.
"To win this race is the greatest feeling there is," a beaming Earnhardt said. "This is amazing. Steve and the guys built me a great, great car, a car that we could fight off battle after battle.
"This is the one. There is nothing better."
Letarte, who is leaving Hendrick Motorsports after this season to join NBC Sports as the network's lead racing analyst, was just as excited as his driver.
"There is nothing better than winning this race," he said. "To give Mr. (Hendrick) the 500 in my last year is something I'll remember forever."
After the race was red-flagged for six hours and 22 minutes due to rain, the battle for the lead became heated, with two-wide and sometimes three-wide racing. Earnhardt was in the middle of most of the battles for the top spot to the delight of his many, many fans who returned to see the final 400 miles.
The last driver Earnhardt had to hold off was Denny Hamlin, who was trying to become the first driver in Daytona history to win the Sprint Unlimited, a qualifying race and the 500.
Hamlin lost radio communications with his spotter after the rain.
"I had to wing it," said Hamlin, who came in second. "Boy, it is tough without a spotter. It would have been tough to get by Dale Jr. at the end, but my chances would have been better if I could have had some help.
"I don't know if I should be happy or sad. To come that close to winning the Daytona 500 ..."
Brad Keselowski moved into second place when the final yellow flag came out with five laps to go.
"I had a really, really fast car," Keselowski said. "I thought we were going to win it, but I just didn't have the help I needed on those last two laps. So I guess I have to be satisfied with third, but I am not really satisfied. I mean, I had a shot at the 500."
Jeff Gordon finished fourth, and Jimmie Johnson completed the top five.
The second five was Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Greg Biffle, rookie pole-sitter Austin Dillon and Casey Mears.
Dillon was involved in two multi-car accidents, causing one of them, but he was able to keep going and earn a top-10 finish in the return of the 3 car.
"I was a pinball out there," Dillon said, "but I got through it. I don't know what happened to cause that first (big) wreck. All I know is it happened quick."
Earnhardt ended up leading eight times for 54 laps, but he had a lot of company at the front. Eighteen drivers led at some point.
"I thought it was some of the hardest racing for the longest time," Keselowski said. "I mean, it was really intense. After we got started back (after the long rain delay), the racing was really, really good."
In the end, it was Earnhardt who came out on top. He became the first driver to qualify for the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship under the new format announced by NASCAR last month.
In announcing new rules for the Chase, the governing body said it would emphasis winning in 2014 with a win "all but guaranteeing the driver a spot in the Chase."
All Earnhardt has to do now is attempt to qualify for the next 25 races, and he is in the Chase.
NOTES: The first yellow flag came out on lap 22 when rookie Kyle Larson spun in turn two. Larson hit the wall on lap three. ... Another yellow flag flew on lap 30 when Martin Truex Jr. suffered a blown engine. "I went to bed thinking this was the best shot I've ever had at winning the Daytona 500," Truex said. "We had such a great car. That is why this is such a shame. Something knocked the fuel pump off." Truex finished 43rd.