Daytona 500: Rapid reaction

— -- DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thoughts on Sunday's Daytona 500 from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

What it means -- There had been much hand-wringing about whether Steve Letarte's decision to leave as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief after this season would tear apart the No. 88 Chevrolet program. Not quite, with a second Daytona 500 victory in hand and Junior becoming the first driver to almost certainly qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup as a race-winner. A run that began with a torrid pace this year shows no signs of abating.

Stock watch -- Down. Tony Stewart. In his first Sprint Cup race since breaking his leg in August while driving a sprint car, the three-time champion came to pit road on Lap 102 with what was diagnosed as a potential fuel-pump issue. After losing 26 laps while repairs were made, he finished 35th, making him 0-for-16 in the Daytona 500 he so badly wants to win.

Big One -- Fifty-five laps to go. Kevin Harvick in the low lane appeared to move up into Brian Scott, who slid up into Aric Almirola, who went into the wall and then came down across the track to collect a total of 12 cars. Among them were pole-sitter Austin Dillon, two-time 500 champion Michael Waltrip and Danica Patrick. "Aww man,'' said Patrick, who finished eighth in last year's 500. "What the hell happened?''

Big One II -- Thirty-eight laps to go. Dillon got into fellow rookie Kyle Larson, spinning him sideways to start a 10-car crash. Larson's car took the worst hit, sending him to the garage.

Big One III -- Seven laps to go. Dillon appeared to give RCR teammate Ryan Newman a bad push. Newman hit Justin Allgaier, triggering a seven-car crash.

Red flag -- Rain that was projected for around 2 p.m. ET arrived right on schedule. After a few laps under caution, the race was red-flagged on Lap 38. It didn't resume until six hours and 22 minutes later. You do the math. Kyle Busch was leading, which technically is the longest he and Toyota have led the Daytona 500.

Quotable -- Clint Bowyer, after his engine blew just shy of Lap 130 around 10 p.m.: "If it was going to blow up, I wish it had blown up four hours ago.'' In other words, before the rain delay.

Memorable moment -- Dillon led the first lap, the first time the famed No. 3 has led a lap in NASCAR's premier series since Dale Earnhardt led 17 in the 2001 Daytona 500.

What's next -- The Sprint Cup series heads to Phoenix International Raceway for a 3 p.m. ET race on March 2.

Brant James contributed to this report.