DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jamie McMurray held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Daytona 500 yesterday, a finish so thrilling it just about made up for a pothole that nearly derailed the Super Bowl of NASCAR.
NASCAR needed two stoppages of well over two hours to patch a pesky pothole between turns 1 and 2 of Daytona International Speedway. The setback brought the biggest race of the season to a frustrating halt and had NASCAR executives fretting over the potential fallout.
But the action picked up tremendously when the second patch had been filled. Drivers had to race as if the hole could rip open again and end the event on any lap. And did they ever.
They beat and banged their way through the field in a white-knuckle final 32 laps. Then a flurry of late-race accidents put NASCAR's "green-white-checker" policy - an overtime of sorts - to the test.
McMurray, using a boost from former teammate Greg Biffle, powered into the lead on the second and final green-white-checkered attempt. But Earnhardt, who restarted the final sprint in 10th place, was slicing his way through the field.
He wove in and out of traffic, shoving his Chevrolet into three-wide lines, eventually darting his way to McMurray's bumper.
It was vintage Earnhardt - a 12-time Daytona winner spanning NASCAR's top two series - and McMurray was terrified to see him growing in his rearview mirror.
"When I saw the 88 behind me, I thought, 'Oh no.' He had a good car and I just thought - Earnhardt and Daytona, they win all the time it just seems like," McMurray said. "You never know what to expect." But with just two laps to make up so much ground, Earnhardt ran out of time and had to settle for second as McMurray sailed to his first career Daytona 500 victory.
"I didn't know where I was, you know, 'til I really kind of got done almost wrecking down the back straightaway," Earnhardt said. "Then I looked up - there's just one car in front of me, 'Jamie's gonna win this damn race!' I was happy for him. He deserves it. They've been through a lot. It's a great team."
McMurray climbed from his car and ran to the Daytona 500 logo in the infield, dropping to his knees and pounding on the painted grass. Overcome with emotion, he sobbed in Victory Lane as he celebrated with his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team.
It was McMurray's first race back with Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, who gave him his Sprint Cup Series shot in 2002. But McMurray left and spent four frustrating seasons with Roush Fenway Racing, only to lose that ride at the end of last season when NASCAR forced Roush to drop a team to meet its four-car limit.
McMurray had to fight to get a seat back with Ganassi, and it included convincing sponsor Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris to take a chance on him.
The risk was well rewarded Sunday with the biggest win of McMurray's career.
"It's unreal," McMurray sobbed. "You know, to be where I was last year and for Johnny Morris and Chip and Felix. What a way to pay them back. It's just very emotional."