Matt Kenseth’s Wildest Win
by Tom Jensen May 27, 2022
On a wild night when the Daytona track surface went up in flames, Hall of Famer Matt Kenseth won again on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
Matt Kenseth earned his place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2023 through a career defined by sustained excellence. But he might be best known for one hot night in Daytona Beach in 2012.
In 2003, Kenseth led the premier series points standings for the final 32 weeks, earning himself the series driver championship and the first for car owner and fellow Hall of Famer Jack Roush (2019).
For his career, Kenseth won 39 premier series races and 29 more in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
And his success came on some of NASCAR’s biggest stages, as Kenseth won two Daytona 500s, a Coca-Cola 600 and all-star race, as well as scoring victories at Talladega Superspeedway and Darlington Raceway.
In terms of a career-defining victory, Kenseth’s triumph in the 2012 Daytona 500 was one few races fans will never forget, although maybe not for the reasons Kenseth would have preferred.
“We had a really fast car all day,” Kenseth said in the Daytona Media Center after winning the Great American Race for a second time. “I had a lot of adversity to overcome, a lot of problems with the car. We were able to get it figured out and had a great pit stop at the end that put us in position, and it feels great. I wasn’t expecting to win when I woke up this morning, so it feels good to be sitting here.”
The 2012 Daytona 500 was memorable for a number of reasons.
For one thing, it was the first Daytona 500 to ever be rained out, and the postponement led to television broadcast partner FOX Sports airing the race Monday night in primetime.
And what a wild night it was.
The action started early, with a five-car crash on the frontstretch bringing out a caution on Lap 3, as Jimmie Johnson, Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and defending race-winner Trevor Bayne were among those eliminated from contention.
Meanwhile, three-time Daytona 500 winner and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019) made it just 81 laps into the 200-lap race before the engine in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet let go.
But the big drama came on Lap 159, shortly after a caution flag came out for a David Stremme spin in Turn 3. Under caution, Juan Pablo Montoya inexplicably crashed into one of the jet dryers, which was in Turn 3 clearing off debris from the racing surface.
The crash caused a huge ball of fire, with 200 gallons of jet fuel leaking out of the vehicle, with the fuel igniting in flames as it rolled down the banking.
Jet dryer driver Duane Barnes was fortunate to escape without serious injury, despite not wearing either a helmet or a fire suit.
“I left the pits and felt a really weird vibration, and I came back in and checked the rear end and said it was OK,” Montoya said. “I got into the backstraight, and we were going in fourth gear but wasn't going that fast. Every time I got on the gas I could feel the rear squeezing. When I was telling the spotter to have a look how the rear was moving the car just turned right.”
Montoya was not expecting the huge impact and subsequent explosion.
“You don't think, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to kill myself,’” Montoya said. “You go, ‘Oh, this is going to hurt a little bit.’ It wasn't that bad. … The way I've always looked at it, either you're going to be OK or you're not. I don't think anyone could hit anything harder than I did.”
The enormous fireball caused a lengthy red-flag period, which lasted 2 hours, 5 minutes and 29 seconds. During the red flag, track safety workers used Tide — yep, the laundry detergent — to clean up the jet fuel. Turns out scrubbing jet fuel off of asphalt is analogous to using soap to get oil off one’s hands.
As if that weren’t surreal enough, Brad Keselowski Tweeted repeatedly from his Penske Racing Dodge during the long red-flag period. Keselowski entered the 500 with about 60,000 Twitter followers; by the next day, that number was up to more than 200,000, as NASCAR firmly caught the social media wave.
Despite three more caution flags in the final 25 laps, Kenseth went on to win the race, his second Daytona 500 victory, surviving a six-car crash on Lap 188 and a seven-car pileup on Lap 197.
All told, Kenseth led 50 of the final 57 laps, winning his second Daytona 500 ahead of fellow Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021)
Asked about the Montoya crash, Kenseth said he wasn’t sure what transpired. “I honestly didn’t see what happened,” he said. “I heard second-hand accounts of it but I didn’t see what happened.”
His boss, however did.
“It was pretty amazing that Juan Pablo’s car broke just at the right time to create a trajectory that took him into a jet dryer,” said Roush “I still don’t know what happened to his engine. I saw the engine was missing when they loaded the car on the rollback, and I thought they would roll out on the ground or it would be leaving after they moved the dryer, but I don’t know where it went. It was amazing that NASCAR was able to have enough Tide and have enough oil dry and had people trained and were able to really save the racetrack. “
The carcass of Montoya’s flambéed Chevrolet? It’s now on Earnhardt’s 200-acre property in Mooresville, N.C., a gift from Montoya’s then crew chief, former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy.