Kenseth had Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle lined up behind him on the final restart, and Biffle played the role of dutiful teammate for the two laps of overtime. Earnhardt pulled out behind Biffle as they closed in on the finish line but couldn't catch Kenseth.
It was an anticlimactic ending after rain postponed the race for the first time in its 54-year history from Sunday to Monday. Then came a frightening fire when Juan Pablo Montoya hit a safety truck, causing a two-hour delay.
Everything that could go wrong with this Daytona 500 did go wrong, and the first NASCAR race in primetime television could be remembered for everything but the winner.
That's because there still was no winner more than four hours after the green flag, which already had been delayed a day.
Journeyman driver Dave Blaney was leading when a problem with Juan Pablo Montoya's car sent him spinning under caution into a safety truck.
The truck, which holds 200 gallons of jet kerosene, burst into flames. Montoya's car slid into the grass, and he gingerly climbed from it as fire trucks rushed to the scene. The inferno raged on, and NASCAR red-flagged the race with 40 laps remaining.
The race was delayed 2 hours, 5 minutes and 29 seconds while track workers scrambled to fix the track.
"About the time you think you've seen about everything, you see something like this," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
NASCAR officials examined the track surface and determined the race could continue. Blaney's lead was short-lived, however, as he had to pit for gas.
Jet fuel poured down the surface of Turn 3 at Daytona International Speedway after the accident, creating a fiery lasting image of NASCAR's biggest race of the year. The clean-up crews were using boxes of Tide laundry detergent to clean up the fuel.
It was par for the course for this Daytona 500, which was postponed for the first time in NASCAR's 54-year history because of steady rain all day Sunday at the track. NASCAR initially planned to restart the race at noon Monday, but persistent rain forced series officials to make an early decision to hold off until 7 p.m.
Fox stayed with its plans to broadcast the race, making it the first ever Daytona 500 shown in primetime and an opportunity to feature the elite Sprint Cup Series. Carl Edwards, who fell just short of winning the title last season, started from the pole with champion Tony Stewart, seeking to snap an 0-for-13 losing streak in the Daytona 500, right behind him.
Danica Patrick, making the full-time move to NASCAR from IndyCar, was making her Daytona 500 debut.
Those storylines, however, were quickly forgotten in this bizarre 55th running of NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl.
It took several minutes for safety workers to put out the fire, and then came the task of removing the truck from the track and cleaning up all that spilled fuel. Towing the truck from the steep banking presented a challenge, as NASCAR was nervous any movement would dig into the track surface.
Montoya, who said his helmet was singed in the fire and his foot ached, said he felt a vibration in his car before the accident.
"I've hit a lot of things - but a jet dryer?" he said. "It just felt really strange, and as I was talking on the radio, the car just turned right."
The drivers were allowed to exit their cars after about 10 minutes under the red flag. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been complaining he had to go to the bathroom, and Brad Keselowski was posting to his Twitter account from inside his car.
Blaney did not initially get out of his car, and Jamie McMurray, who outlasted nearly two hours of delays to fix a pesky pothole during his 2010 victory, stopped at Blaney's window to speak to the driver leading the biggest race of his career. As the red flag continued, the drivers began to congregate around Blaney, and he got out of his car.
Blaney entered the race winless in 397 previous starts. The 48-year-old from Ohio won his only NASCAR race in 2006 in the second-tier Nationwide Series.
And he came into Daytona having to race his way into the field after team owner Tommy Baldwin made a deal with Stewart to give Patrick the points she needed to guarantee her a spot in the Daytona 500.
Lined up behind Blaney was Landon Cassill, who was running for BK Racing, a team formed earlier this month when it purchased the assets and points from defunct Red Bull Racing, and Tony Raines, who raced his way into the Daytona 500 and picked up sponsorship from Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
The racing was aggressive at the drop of the green flag, and the first accident occurred on just the second lap, when Elliott Sadler ran into the back of Jimmie Johnson as they drafted around the track.
The contact sent Johnson into the wall, and as the five-time NASCAR champion slid back down across the track, he was hit hard in the door by David Ragan. The accident collected six cars total, including defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Patrick.
"I'm just really, really bummed to start the season this way," Johnson said. "To work as hard as everyone did at Hendrick Motorsports to get this Lowe's Chevrolet and to have it barely complete two-and-a-half miles of green flag racing is pretty sad. We'll just go on and go to Phoenix and set our marks on winning that race."
He may go to Phoenix without any points: NASCAR is expected to penalize crew chief Chad Knaus this week for failing the first inspection of SpeedWeeks. Knaus could be facing both a suspension and a loss of a points.
It took about an hour for Patrick's Stewart-Haas Racing crew to get her back on the track, and she returned 62 laps behind the leader.
The race settled down after that, and the push for the $200,000 leader bonus at the halfway mark didn't spark too much excitement. Two-time NASCAR champion Terry Labonte had been running second and presumably in position to make a move for the cash, but he was spun by Marcos Ambrose.
"Awe, man! Who would turn the Ice Man around?" Earnhardt shouted on his team radio.
After a brief caution, the leaders had a 10-lap sprint to the halfway point, and Martin Truex Jr. used a big push from Denny Hamlin to slide by Greg Biffle on the deciding lap. Although he was told over his team radio to "go get the other half," history didn't bode well for Truex: the last leader at the halfway point to win the Daytona 500 was Davey Allison in 1992.