The 51st Daytona 500 had several suitors, from dominant cars to crowd favorites to feel-good stories.
And then the heavens opened -- right above Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth passed Elliott Sadler to take the lead of the Great American Race on lap 146 of a scheduled 200. That's when a caution flag flew for a spinout back in the pack.
Then the rain fell. And tears followed.
The rain-shortened race made a Daytona 500 champion out of Kenseth and made the stoic stalwart of the Sprint Cup series unusually -- but understandably -- emotional.
"It's going to be wet out here because I'm going to be crying like a baby," he said in victory lane of Daytona International Speedway. "I've just got to thank my team and thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity. I've had a lot of great opportunities in my life, from my family getting me in racing and . . . all the sponsors that we have that have stuck by us in an up-and-down economy. Winning the Daytona 500 is a definitely a dream moment."
While the start of this NASCAR season has been marked by changes of all sorts, Kenseth and his black-and-gold Roush Racing Ford have been as dependable as a team sponsored by a tool company could hope for. The quiet, unassuming native of Cambridge, Wis., may never have set flashbulbs popping, but his record should have: He won the series title in 2003 and has made the postseason chase, which began the following year, every season since.
Last year he finished 11th in what was his first winless season since 2001. On Sunday he drove car No. 17 to its 17th victory and, along with rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, gave car owner Jack Roush his first Daytona 500 championship.
"I actually am an emotional guy, you guys [in the media] just don't know it," said Kenseth, who had gone 36 races without a win. "Yesterday I was sitting in the motor home telling [wife] Katie, 'Man, I'm really getting fed up with not winning.' Just to put it together and actually win the Daytona 500, it's pretty overwhelming."
Kenseth, who stalked Sadler for nine laps, overtook him entering Turn One thanks in part to momentum provided by a push by Kevin Harvick.
Two years ago, Harvick won the Daytona 500 on the last lap thanks in part to a powerful push from Kenseth coming out of the superstretch.
"Another lap, and you never know what would have happened," said Harvick, who finished second. "Matt is the one who pushed me to my Daytona 500 win in the end, it's kind of weird how that stuff works out."
It turns out that would be the only green flag lap Kenseth would lead in the DeWalt Ford. Moments after he passed Sadler, Aric Almirola (30th) spun out in the backstretch to bring out a caution flag. Kenseth led the field around the famed 2 1/2 -mile, high-banked tri-oval six times before NASCAR halted the race with a red flag.
Kenseth sat in his car as the rest of the field and a reported capacity crowd of 180,000 wondered how long the delay would last. Fifteen minutes later, Kenseth had achieved as much fame as a NASCAR driver can: He was declared the Daytona 500 champion and winner of $1,536,388.
Sadler had led 24 laps and was on the cusp of what would have been an amazing start to the year after a tumultuous offseason in which he filed a lawsuit to keep his driving job at Evernham Gillett before it merged to become Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I'm not going to lie, I was getting pretty emotional under the caution when it was raining a little bit in Turn One and Two," said Sadler, who finished fifth. "It's hard to swallow. I'm proud of my guys. New team. New pit stops. They all worked out great tonight. To look in their faces when the rain was coming down when I got out of the car, man, that was hard. Because I felt like I let them down."
For the second straight Daytona 500, Kyle Busch led the most laps only to get taken out early. Busch was victimized when Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun out Brian Vickers as two lapped cars' skirmish led to a 10-car crash.
A.J. Allmendinger, who had to race his way into the Daytona 500 and whose team at the newly merged Petty Motorsports entered the season with sponsorship for just the first eight races, kept poking his No. 44 Dodge near the front and finished third, one spot ahead of Clint Bowyer.
Two of the all-time greats took turns at the front. Tony Stewart led 15 laps but was eighth while Jeff Gordon led 14 laps but finished 13th.
"I don't know if there will be a lot of celebrating this week," said Kenseth. "Probably most of it was in victory lane. I'm looking forward to the week -- it's not always my favorite thing to do, but I'm really looking forward to going around [to media appearances] and people calling me the Daytona 500 champion. I'm going to enjoy it the best I can and try to find some time to celebrate when we have time in our schedule for it."
In other words, there's a race in California on Sunday, so Kenseth will just be going back to work.
Review Keith McShea's blogs and chats on the Sports, Ink blog at buffalonews.com/blogs