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By Lewis Franck
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended a 55-race winless spell when drove his Chevrolet to victory in a rain-interrupted, crash-marred Daytona 500 on Sunday in the season-opening NASCAR race.
Denny Hamlin was second in a Toyota and Brad Keselowski took third in a Ford, placed ahead of Jeff Gordon and his Chevrolet after a video review by officials following the jam-packed finish at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt used a push from team mate Gordon to win a two-lap shoot-out to the finish line after one of a series of crashes in the race set up the last mad dash as he registered his second Daytona crown after a string of near misses in recent years.
"We got a little help from Jeff to get away," said Earnhardt, who led six times for a race-high 54 laps and took the lead for good on lap 183.
The race actually ended under a yellow caution flag waved just seconds before the leaders reached finish line as another six cars crashed.
It was a marathon day and night at the speedway with the Great American Race completed after a six hour, 21 minute rain delay that came after the 38th lap and was the longest single day interruption in 56 editions of the race.
Earnhardt's triumph came 10 years after the 2004 victory by NASCAR's most popular driver.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling you can feel in this sport," Earnhardt said after a reverse-lap drive down the frontstretch to show his appreciation for the fans.
Earnhardt had notched three second-place finishes in the race over the last four years, including the last two.
"And it feels just as good, if not better, than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year," said Earnhardt, whose victory also ended a winless drought that dated back to Michigan in 2012.
The biggest crash of the race happened three-fourths of the way through, involving 13 cars, including the one driven by Danica Patrick, who last year became the only woman to win the pole position for the event.
"I felt like everything was going pretty well, so it's just upsetting," Patrick said. "It's a bummer, but you know that is the excitement of speedway racing, that anything can happen."
That chain-reaction crash was started by polesitter Austin Dillon, who was driving the No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by the late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt and which had not been driven since his fatal crash at Daytona in 2001.
Dillon was also involved in two of the other crashes in the race but emerged to finish ninth.
Earnhardt Jr. was relatively out of the spotlight before surging to the front on lap 131, but over and again the field packed up due to all the cautions that marked the race and he had to fend off charges by Ford rivals Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
On lap 183, Earnhardt surged ahead of Edwards and then held off challenges Hamlin, Keselowski and Gordon.
"I knew what I needed to do," Earnhardt said about the final laps. "Whether it was the 2 (Keseloswki) car or Denny (Hamlin), and limit their opportunity to get to me.
"This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening. I'll never take this for granted because this doesn't happen twice, let alone once. So I'm thankful."
(Editing by Larry Fine)