DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged as the resilient marathon man Sunday night, not long before the midnight hour, surviving the usual Daytona 500 drama, carnage and chaos.
Earnhardt, NASCAR Nation's favorite son, was the first man to the finish line after a rain delay of 6 hours and 21 minutes and 40 seconds -- the longest in NASCAR history.
He stayed in front of Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski for the victory.
Earnhardt won the race for the second time -- a decade after his first victory -- while snapping a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012. He had been second in three of the previous four 500s.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship," Earnhardt said. "I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to feel it again, and it feels just as good."
As he crossed the finish line in his No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt euphorically radioed his crew, "This is better than the first one!" He was met by Rick Hendrick after his victory lap, and the team owner climbed into the driver's window for a ride to Victory Lane.
"Congrats to Junior," Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon said. "The world is right. Dale Jr. won the Daytona 500. That's a great sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one."
An accident with seven laps to go triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 -- the late Dale Earnhardt's number making its return to the 500 for the first time since 2001 -- set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.
Earnhardt Jr. got a great jump past Keselowski on the restart and had Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.
Then an accident farther back in the field involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.
"We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart," Earnhardt said. "This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening."
Said Hamlin, "It was intense. I thought we would wreck more cars. It was a great race for the fans."
The race took out a number of prominent drivers, including Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner. His car got loose and hit the inside wall with 17 laps to go.
Another previous winner, Michael Waltrip, and 2013 pole-setter Danica Patrick were among those caught up in the scramble of bumper cars on Lap 144.
"Someone just cleaned our clock from behind," Waltrip said. "I guess they didn't get the word there was a wreck."
Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet bounced into an area not protected by the safer barriers, but she was fine after emerging from the infield care center.
"It feels like they are all pretty hard unfortunately," she said. " ... It's a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing that anything can happen."
The rain started coming down about an hour after the race began and eventually forced race officials to evacuate the upper grandstands at Daytona International Speedway after tornado warning were issued.
The extended delay gave rise to many logistical hiccups, especially in cyberspace, where several Twitters followers and a handful of media outlets mistakenly thought Jimmie Johnson won the race at the 21/2-mile superspeedway. In fact, Fox was showing a replay of the 2013 race, won by Johnson.
"I hear I won the #Daytona500? Haha! I also have friends confused and texting congratulations to me," Johnson tweeted in the early evening.