DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — No one seemed more surprised than Joey Logano as he stood atop his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford in Daytona International Speedway Victory Lane celebrating his first-ever Daytona 500 victory on Sunday.
Logano — who in 2009 at the age of 19 became the youngest winner in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series history — emerged from a tight pack of pre-race favorites on a green-white-checkered overtime restart and held off reigning Cup champion Kevin Harvick as the caution and checkered flag flew to win at Daytona.
“I can’t believe it,” said Logano, whose previous best finish in this race was ninth in 2012. “That is really amazing. The Daytona 500. Oh my God. Are you kidding me?
“I was so nervous pretty much the whole race. We worked so hard in the offseason and this is my weakest race track, the superspeedways, and we worked so hard at them. I couldn’t be more proud.
Defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, frustrated after having what he thought was a race-winning car. Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five.
Jeff Gordon, who started on the pole for the race and led six times for a race-best 87 laps, was collected in a last-lap wreck on the backstretch. But he drove his dinged-up No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet around the track to take his final Daytona 500 checkered flag in 33rd place.
“For some reason I’m still smiling and enjoyed every moment of it,” said the four-time Cup champ, who is stepping away from full-time NASCAR competition after this season. “I obviously enjoyed the first half (of the race) more than the second half. … This is an amazing week and an amazing day. I’m just in this different place that is so foreign yet so incredible, just soaking it all in.
“I’m more upset I didn’t have a chance at winning it. … I’m not going to miss those final laps. That was just crazy.”
The final restart came after a 6-minute red-flag period caused by a Justin Allgaier wreck on the frontstretch and created the kind of frantic finish fans are accustomed to in NASCAR’s biggest race.
But for the most part, Sunday’s show on a Chamber of Commerce day with sunny skies and temperatures in the high 70s was tame by restrictor-plate racing standards.
The final lap eight-car mid-pack melee was the sole “Big One” that most have come to expect on the superspeedways.
Mostly, the day was characterized by exciting three-wide racing with familiar faces leading the way.
Overshadowed amid other dramatic storylines that have dominated the 2015 Daytona Speedweeks, six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Johnson quietly and doggedly went about his business Sunday and looked to be in good position to hoist his third Daytona 500 trophy, and second in the past three years.
Rallying from a mid-race pit road penalty that dropped him to 40th place, Johnson strategically maneuvered his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in the waning laps to be in position for the win, but lamented the fact his line of drafting cars just didn’t have the get-up-and-go when they needed to be gone.
“With 10 to go, I thought we were going to win the Daytona 500, but with plate racing you have no clue what’s going to happen really,” Johnson said.
Earnhardt echoed the disappointment.
“I made a real bad decision on that restart with 19 to go, made a poor choice and got shuffled back and lost a ton of spots,” Earnhardt said. “I’m real disappointed because the guys gave me the best car and we should have run the race.”
It was a touch-and-go day for several race favorites — their strategy complicated after receiving pit road penalties in the season debut of NASCAR’s new high-tech camera monitoring system on pit road.
Johnson was called for a pit road violation when his crew was ruled to have jumped over the pit wall too soon on a mid-race stop. Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. — who like Johnson were running among the top five much of the race — were called for speeding penalties.
And Sprint Cup Series sophomore Kyle Larson was caught speeding and then later for his team “throwing equipment over the wall” on consecutive stops forcing him into a day of catch-up. He was running top 15 in the final 10 laps but also got collected on the last-lap crash and finished 34th.
Fan favorite Tony Stewart continued his dismal Daytona 500 fortune. While running among the top 10 cars 41 laps into the race, his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy suffered from a tight condition and slid up into the outside wall, nicking rookie Ryan Blaney’s Ford. The Toyotas of Matt Kenseth and Michael Waltrip also suffered minor damage in the incident but continued.
“I’ll take the blame for that one, 100 percent my fault,” said Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who is now 0-for-17 in the Great American Race. His 42nd-place effort Sunday is his third finish of 40th or worse in the last four years here.
Former Daytona 500 winners Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman also struggled on Sunday — with McMurray’s No. 1 Cessna/McDonald’s Chevy sustaining body damage in an early race dust-up and Newman — the 2014 Sprint Cup championship runner-up — hitting the wall after getting caught in the aftermath of Blaney’s blown engine with less than 25 laps remaining.
Substitute drivers Regan Smith and Matt Crafton finished 16th and 19th, respectively. Smith drove the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy for Kurt Busch, who has been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR following off-track legal troubles.
Crafton filled in for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch, who is recovering from broken right leg and broken left foot suffered in Saturday’s XFINITY Series season-opener at Daytona.
Logano’s triumph was the second Daytona 500 win for legendary team owner Roger Penske and made the 24-year-old Logano the second youngest driver to win the race.
“We knew what we had to do and had a really fast car and just need to make sure I didn’t get snookered on the restarts,” Logano explained. “I can’t explain how cool this is. … It feels just like the way you dream it. This is better than Disney World in here.”