DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -As the rain clouds crept closer to Daytona International Speedway yesterday, Matt Kenseth crept closer to the front of the field.
He passed Elliott Sadler with a push from Kevin Harvick to take the lead on Lap 146 of the Daytona 500. And as the rain came down six laps later, Kenseth, known for his even-keeled and calm personality, started screaming into his radio: "Rain! Rain! Rain! Rain!"
It caught his crew chief off guard, but this was a big moment. Kenseth was in first place when the race was red-flagged because of rain. Twenty minutes later, NASCAR called it and Kenseth won as he sat in his covered Roush Fenway Ford on pit road.
"It's going to be really wet out here because I'm crying like a baby," Kenseth said. "Man, I don't know. Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment."
The race - the fourth rain-shortened 500 in the race's 51-year history and first since Michael Waltrip's 2003 victory - lasted 380 miles but didn't mean any less to the 2003 Cup champion. It was his first win at Daytona International Speedway and the first win for Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing in the Daytona 500.
"He's one of those guys that he can win seven or eight races in a year and never receive any credit," said Harvick, who finished second. "He's a really good racecar driver. He's a champion, Daytona 500 champion. I think a lot of times those things are overlooked."
If they are, it's because of the way Kenseth wins - unglamorously and often in uninteresting fashion.
He won his only Cup championship with one win the entire season. NASCAR created the Chase for the Championship shortly thereafter, hoping to avoid similar champions in the future.
"Man, I'm going to go paint the town plaid," he deadpanned to a columnist who in 2003 wrote Kenseth has no personality.
The win was the first for Kenseth since the 2007 season finale, a streak of 36 races. The failures and frustrations of late had started to wear on Kenseth, who vented to his wife the day before the 500.
"I was telling her, 'Man, I'm really getting fed up with not winning, with not being a contender,' " he said. "It was actually starting to weigh on me more than we thought. We haven't been a serious contender for the championship for a few years. To be able to put it all together, be able to win the race, is pretty overwhelming."
AJ Allmendinger, who had to race his way into the field in one of Thursday's qualifiers, finished third.
Clint Bowyer was fourth, and Sadler was fifth, devastated he lost the lead moments before the rain stopped the race. He led 24 laps and was out front during an earlier caution, hoping the sky would open up at that moment to give him the win.
"If I would have made a better and smarter move, I'd be in Victory Lane right now," Sadler bemoaned. "Very hard to swallow. Very emotional."
David Ragan was sixth and was followed by Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart, Reed Sorenson and Kurt Busch.
Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. was 11th. Defending race winner Ryan Newman was 36th.
Joey Logano, who at 18 was the youngest starter in race history, finished 43rd. Logano wrecked his No. 20 Toyota on Lap 80 after getting tangled up with Scott Speed and Bowyer, sending Logano sliding into the inside wall and last place.
Yesterday afternoon, Kenseth was forced to start the race at the back of the field because he went to a backup car after a wreck Thursday.
By Lap 50, he was already up to fifth place and hovered near the front of the pack for most of the rest of the race.
But without other drivers crumpling their cars, Kenseth might not have had his chance.
Kyle Busch led with 124 laps to go when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers - both a lap down and battling for the lucky-dog position - wrecked, taking several other cars with them.
Vickers blocked an attempted pass by pushing Earnhardt below the yellow out-of-bounds line. When Earnhardt re-entered the racing surface, he clipped the left-rear corner of Vickers' car to trigger a nine-car accident.
Busch, who led a race-high 88 laps, was done for the day.
"I felt like our car was the car to beat; we were awfully good," Busch said. "Just running out front and biding our time. I didn't feel like we were worse than sixth the whole time out there. Just a really sad feeling."
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards also suffered damage in the wreck. Edwards finished 18th, Hamlin 26th and Johnson 31st.
It opened the door for Kenseth.
"After that wreck, we felt like we were the fastest car," Kenseth said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.