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NASCAR's task is duplicating Daytona 500 thriller

Wednesday - 2/26/2014, 6:08pm  ET

In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 photo provided by CBS, Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, joins host David Letterman on the set of the “Late Show with David Letterman" in New York. Earnhardt discussed winning his second Daytona 500. (AP Photo/CBS, Jeffrey R. Staab) MANDATORY CREDIT, NO SALES, NO ARCHIVE, FOR NORTH AMERICAN USE ONLY

JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- When the race finally resumed -- some six hours after the Daytona 500 was brought to a water-logged halt -- fans that made it to the finish were treated to one of the most intense races in memory.

As NASCAR heads West for a two-race swing through Phoenix and Las Vegas, the challenge is to somehow duplicate all that energy from the Daytona 500. There are 36 events left this year, and NASCAR would have very few problems if they are half as exciting as the 500.

"It was electric, man," winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't know what the hell was going on or why it was like that. I wish I knew, because that's what NASCAR wants to bottle and sell."

NASCAR spent much of last year working on a new rules package to improve the on-track action at 1.5-mile tracks, and the first test won't come until March 9 at Las Vegas. First up is this Sunday's race at Phoenix, a one-mile, low-banked tri-oval in the desert that will give teams a far better indicator than Daytona of how prepared they are for the season.

But there will be new eyes watching, partly because of Earnhardt's victory and partly because of the sheer competitiveness of Daytona, and they'll be expecting a similar show.

"I know everybody thinks it's the greatest race they ever saw because Dale Jr. won it," Earnhardt said. "Taking that out of the equation, I think it really was an exciting race and one of the most exciting Daytona 500s I've ever been in and one of the most intense races I've ever been in.

"It felt so different than any other race I'd ever been in. The intensity level was at a max. Races usually have a lull in the middle, don't get going 'til the end when it's time to put money on the line, people start picking up the intensity. We sustained it from the time we started, restarted, all the way to the end. I couldn't believe it."

The race had 42 lead changes, and 37 of them came after the rain delay. Drivers ran three-wide when the situation called for single-file or maybe side-by-side racing. They seemed to treat every lap as if it was the last.

There's no one reason to credit for the aggression, but a likely contributor was that no one was sure if it would rain again. Should the sky suddenly open up, the race would have ended and the winner would have been the leader on that lap.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France famously declared last September that he expected drivers to give 100 percent on every lap, and the Daytona 500 was evidence that everyone in the field is capable of meeting that demand.

"I think everyone raced a hard, 500-mile race. I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting," said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski. "I couldn't be more pleased as both a participant and naturally a fan of the sport with how the 500 went from a competitive standpoint."

Now it's up to the drivers to deliver a similar product going forward.

___

TWEETING FOOL: So reluctant to get involved in social media, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is suddenly a tweeting fool.

He joked with Michael Waltrip that he'd consider joining Twitter if he won the Daytona 500, and followed through with that promise with his first tweet early Monday.

Earnhardt has since proven to be an expert at selfies, used photos of his whirlwind winner's media tour to show his humor, and has already hosted his first Twitter chat. His account was established by JR Motorsports in 2008 just in case he ever wanted to use Twitter. It gradually added followers, even though the account was dormant, and a Twitter official said this week Earnhardt had 215,106 the day before the Daytona 500.

That number had gone up to 216,320 by midnight on Sunday, and had swelled to 416,219 a mere 24 hours later.

Now two days after that tweet, Earnhardt has passed the half-million mark and is rapidly closing in on six-time champion Jimmie Johnson's mark 548,000 followers. Next up on the list? Danica Patrick, who last weekend became the first driver in NASCAR or IndyCar to reach 1 million followers.

"I just felt like I was going to join Twitter sooner or later and just didn't know when," Earnhardt said. "It's becoming such a big part of our lives and such big part of exposure to our partners. I'm having fun with it. I thought it would be after an event like winning the championship or the Daytona 500 -- it felt natural (Sunday night) to go ahead and kick it off. We had 200,000 followers without one tweet. I figured they'd been waiting around for something."

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