The legendary number "3" lead the field to the green flag of the 2014 Daytona 500, but it was an Earnhardt that stood in victory lane.

In a race that started in broad daylight and ended 42 minutes before midnight, and with a swatch of tape covering part of his grille, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the rain-interrupted 56th running of the Daytona 500 Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt was a car-length ahead of Denny Hamlin when NASCAR threw the seventh caution of the race a split second before Earnhardt crossed the finish line to win the Great American Race for the second time in his career.

Under NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, Earnhardt's 20th career Sprint Cup Series victory almost assuredly locks him into the 10-race postseason playoff, set to start at Chicagoland Speedway in September.

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Hamlin came home second as the race ended under caution, with Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson running third through fifth, respectively.

In Victory Lane, Earnhardt didn't even try to contain his elation. After all, he had just broken a 55-race winless streak. After finishing second in three last four Daytona 500s, he had just won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener in his last year with crew chief Steve Letarte, who is headed for the TV booth in 2015.

And he had just won his second Daytona 500 a decade after winning his first, holding off Hamlin in a dramatic two-lap dash to the finish.

(Race highlights begin around the 1:10)

"Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in the sport, aside from obviously accepting the trophy for the championship," Earnhardt all but shouted over the din of the celebration. "I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to feel that again, and it feels just as good, if not better than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all those years and wondering why and what we needed to do.

 

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