|Flames erupt from a jet dryer after it was hit by Juan Pablo Montoya during the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 27, 2012. (PIERRE DUCHARME/Reuters)
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. - Was there anything that could top Matt Kenseth winning the Daytona 500 that started on a Monday in prime time for the first time in 54 years and ended with two overtime laps?
Well, yes, how about Juan Pablo Montoya crashing his No. 42 Chevrolet into a jet dryer on the 2.5 mile superspeedway setting off a fireball that looked like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie.
And then there were the three consecutive bid wrecks in the final dozen laps that effectively took out such race favourites as Tony Stewart, Brad Keseloswki and Jamie McMurray.
Montoya had just left pit lane after complaining to his team that he had a vibration in the rear end of his car. As he tried to get up to speed he was passing a pair of trucks towing jet engines that are used to blow debris off of the racing surface.
Just as Montoya reached the first truck, the read end — the part of the race car where the drive shaft connects to the rear axel — appeared to seize and the car began to spin, smashing into the back of the second jet dryer, and instantly there was a huge explosion.
The miracle was that all the drivers, Montoya and the two truck drivers, escaped without any injuries.
“Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer,” Montoya said. “I felt a vibration and came in. (The team) looked at everything and everything was OK and I still told them: ‘I think there is something broke’.
“I was going down the back straightaway, and I was going in fourth gear, but, we weren’t even going that fast. Every time I got on the gas I could feel the rear really squeezing. I got on the brakes to travel up and while I was telling the spotter to have a look on how the rear was moving, the car just turned right.”
If there was a lighter side to the resulting red flag that stopped the race, it was that several drivers got out of their cars — including Kyle Busch — to have a pee.
The blast was the second freakish one in the past three Daytona 500s. Two years ago, the race was stopped for more than three hours when a pot hole developed on the track.
It was a night of history for the Daytona 500 that was run on a weekday in prime time, under the lights for the first time in 54 years.
Thirty hours after rain washed out Sunday’s scheduled start there were still almost 120,000 fans in attendance — the capacity at Daytona International Speedway
Another compelling story in the Great Amreican Race’s debut under the lights in prime time came only 2.6-miles old when two of the sports most glamourous names — five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and much-hyped rookie Danica Patrick — crashed only yards past the start-finish line after completing only one lap.
Also caught up in that wreck was last year’s surprise winner, Trevor Bayne and 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch.
Patrick, Bayne and Busch all came back after extensive repairs many laps down but Johnson was done for the night.
“I’m just really, really bummed to start the season this way,” he said. “To work as hard as everyone did at Hendrick Motorsports ... and to have it barely complete two-and-a-half miles of green flag racing is pretty sad.”
Patrick ended up 38th.
The half-way leader award — $200,000 worth — went to Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 55 Toyota ... In spite of finishing 34th in the Camping World Truck Series on Friday, J.R. Fitzpatrick, of Cambridge, Ont., and the No. 60 Equipment Express Chevrolet Silverado team pocketed $9,670 US for 61 laps of racing. That’s small change compared to winner John King’s $76,525 payout. ... In the Nationwide race on Saturday, Canadian owned teams — the No. 27 GC International Ford and the No. 81 MacDonald Motorsports Dodge — earned $43,170 and $47,333 respectively ... KV Racing Technology co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser announced Monday that Venezuelan E. J. Viso will return to the team for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Viso, 26, will drive the No. 5 Chevrolet powered Dallara DW12 with money from his home country’s oil and gas giant CITCO ... It was neat to see Toyota boss of bosses Akio Toyoda taking a few laps around Daytona’s 2.5-mile track with Kyle Busch in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. ..... Bad news for the Marussia Formula 1 team, where Canada’s Robert Wickens was a back-up driver last season. The team has been forced to scrap plans to run its new Formula 1 car at this week’s Barcelona test after failing the final mandatory crash test. In a new move instituted for the 2012 season F-1 teams have to pass the crash tests before they are allowed to run their cars at an official test.