Most popular stories from USA TODAY

  1. HF Test1857.19:09:45.1460007
McMurray hangs on to win pothole-marred Daytona 500
Updated 2/15/2010 11:32 PM ET
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR's "have-at-it, boys" strategy of loosening rules to tighten competition succeeded Sunday, producing a record 21 leaders, a wild overtime finish and a surprise Daytona 500 winner.

But the latest attempt to inject juice into a sport suffering from four consecutive seasons of sagging TV ratings and attendance also hit a bump — or in this case a gaping pothole in Turn 2 whose repair caused long breaks in the action during the Sprint Cup Series' marquee event.

EMOTIONS FLOW: Big welcome back for McMurray NOTES: Earnhardt Jr. charges to second RESULTS: Daytona 500

In one of the most bizarre but intriguing season openers in recent memory, Jamie McMurray passed Greg Biffle with one lap remaining and parried a charge by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win in his first race since returning to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. The race concluded after 208 laps — eight more than the scheduled distance because of a new rule that mandated three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.

"I can't explain it," McMurray, whose career was in doubt before being hired in November, said between sobs in victory lane after his fourth career win. "It's a dream, really."

Some fans, though, might have found the length of the event at Daytona International Speedway to be a nigxmlare. The race that NASCAR drivers like to bill as their version of the Super Bowl took the equivalent of two super-sized halftime breaks that lasted a total of 2 hours, 25 minutes.

The lights unexpectedly were on in a finish that occurred more than six hours after its 1:18 p.m. ET green flag — which was two hours earlier than in recent seasons as part of a push for earlier starting times to placate fans.

It's the third time in the past five years that a marquee auto race has been plagued by a competition problem, and attendance suffered in the year after two tire debacles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Last year's Brickyard 400 crowd fell by roughly 30% after a caution-plagued race in 2008, mirroring similar problems experienced at the Formula One event in 2005-06.

"We're the world center of racing," said Robin Braig, president of Daytona since 2002. "This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen. I apologize for it. This is hallowed ground, and we accept responsibility."

Daytona is the crown jewel that draws NASCAR's largest audience (an estimated 175,000 attended Sunday, and millions watched on TV) as well as its most famous. The 52nd running of the Daytona 500 ran the usual gamut of celebrities (Harry Connick Jr. sang the national anthem after country favorite Tim McGraw performed a prerace concert for thousands gathered on the frontstretch grass) and politicians (attendees Sunday included Sarah Palin and, Republican national chairman Michael Steele).

Despite the magnified spotlight, runner-up Earnhardt said the delay won't have any effect on Daytona's future crowds or NASCAR's image.

"Track surfaces are going to have problems from time to time," he said. "This wasn't a fault of NASCAR, Daytona or nobody's."

Said third-place finisher Greg Biffle: "It was unfortunate for the fans and the people watching on TV that we had to have that big delay. But it was nobody's fault that the racetrack came apart. It wasn't neglect."

Johnson was first track victim

Braig said the hole — 15 inches long, 9 inches wide and 2 inches deep — wasn't apparent during a thorough track inspection Sunday morning.

Four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was the first to be affected by the hole when his No. 48 Chevrolet caught a flat tire on lap 117. The first red flag followed and lasted 1 hour, 40 minutes, 45 seconds.

The first repair didn't hold because of cold temperatures, said Braig, who added he couldn't explain the materials used to patch the hole because he wasn't an engineer. A second repair took after being heated.

But another repair was required 39 laps later, and the race was stopped for more than 44 minutes.

"Everybody was hitting (the hole)," Earnhardt said. "You just tried to be careful. If you ran over it, you felt it. It wasn't a big issue at the end."

Earnhardt and Biffle both speculated the hole occurred because of the track's pounding from 3,400-pound cars at 190 mph. Asphalt is not solid like concrete but has multiple elements, such as gravel and a sealant, and the hole caused debris to scatter across the track.

The 2.5-mile superspeedway hasn't been repaved since 1978, and Earnhardt renewed his call for a resurfacing Sunday.

"They should have repaved it several years ago," he said. "It's due."

The track's worst bumps actually are in turns 3 and 4, and some drivers prefer the worn-out asphalt to a glass-smooth surface because it makes driving more difficult. On a repaved surface, where it's easier to achieve consistent speeds, cars tend to spread out, and passing decreases.

"I would hate to see them re-pave this track," Tony Stewart said Friday, "because the drivers are actually a huge part of the equation."

Talladega Superspeedway, a sister track to Daytona because of its size and a rule requiring carburetor restrictor plates to choke airflow to the engine and reduce speeds, was repaved two years ago, and drivers ran in single-file lines for much of 500 miles in a race last fall that was roundly criticized.

"It's unfortunate that they're going to pave this racetrack because the grip level is about perfect," Biffle said. "The cars slide up the racetrack. You can't go around (at full throttle) like Talladega."

Braig said a repaving was under consideration (and engineers would evaluate a project this week) but "we don't want to paint the whole house when all we have to do is a little touchup."

Heading for the exits

Fans began leaving about an hour into the first delay, forming a long line of cars on International Speedway Boulevard heading to I-95. Many couldn't be blamed for an early departure, because they'd been promised one by the track with a starting time that was two hours earlier than the last several years.

Last October, Braig said he had fielded "thousands upon thousands of phone calls and e-mails over the past six to seven years from our race guests begging to go to earlier start times."

Among Daytona fans who didn't renew their tickets, earlier start times were the reason ranked second highest — ahead of traffic, bathroom facilities and concession prices.

By scheduling a daylight finish, the track's mostly blue-collar supporters (NASCAR demographics classify more than half of its fans as middle class) would be able to drive home in time for work Monday morning and not have to stay an extra night in a hotel room. In previous years, Braig said many fans weren't able to leave the lot until 2 a.m.

"We will be reaching out to them before they can reach out to us," said Braig, who had no estimate on how many fans left. "I absolutely don't blame (those that might have left)."

"How embarrassing is this for NASCAR and the Daytona 500!" said Nick Depero, echoing the thoughts of thousands of fans, on Twitter, where the race became a trending topic. "All year to prep the track and they let this happen at the biggest NASCAR event!"

The last time a track caused such a disruption was the April 18, 2004, race at Martinsville Speedway. On an unusually warm day (with temperatures in the 80s), a softer, stickier tire dug up the short track's asphalt, and the track was patched after a delay of 1 hour, 17 minutes. A loose chunk of the track put a hole in the front grille of Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet.

"This isn't the first time I've seen racetracks come apart, unfortunately," Gordon joked during Sunday's first delay. "The only difference is I don't have a big hole in the front of my car."

The mood was light while drivers waited through the first stoppage. Earnhardt played baseball trivia on the radio with his team ("Who's the career hit leader?" asked a crewmember. "Pete Rose, man!" Earnhardt replied.)

But by the second delay, in which track workers appeared to fill the hole with a white substance that resembled spackling cream, the tone shifted as more somber drivers apologized.

Appeasing the fans is an overarching theme this season for NASCAR, which relaxed the rules for bump-drafting at Daytona and has encouraged drivers to embrace more slam-bang action while displaying their emotions. On Sunday, the largest restrictor plate at Daytona in 20 years increased horsepower and allowed drivers plenty of oomph to attempt daring passes while trying to hang onto ill-handling cars.

"They made a lot of good choices on putting racing back in the driver's hands," Earnhardt said. "There was ton of bumping, and never did I feel NASCAR looking over my shoulder."

But will enough people still be looking at NASCAR after the longest Daytona 500 not delayed by rain?

"What happened today, obviously it's not good for the fans," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "But anyone who's been a fan of racing very long has sat through rain delays and things like this. We'll see what the ratings are this week. Obviously, we all hope they're going to be great. Those fans who did continue to watch throughout the day saw great racing and a great finish."

Thrill ride at the end

McMurray, using a boost from former teammate Greg Biffle (FSY), 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 weaved in and out of traffic, shoving his Chevrolet into three-wide lines, eventually darting his way to McMurray's bumper. It was vintage Earnhardt — he's 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 of his charge. "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.

Biffle, a close friend of McMurray's, was disappointed in finishing third because he was the leader when the caution came out after the first green-white-checkered attempt. But he was able to give McMurray the push that got his buddy into Victory Lane.

"I just made my move too soon, a mistake on my part probably," Biffle said. "This is a big, big win for anybody's career. You got to be happy for anybody that ever wins this race. I was especially happy, the guys I was up there beating and banging with, you know, I would rather see Jamie win than those guys."

Clint Bowyer (FSY) finished fourth and was followed by David Reutimann (FSY) and Martin Truex Jr. (FSY)— teammates for Michael Waltrip (FSY), who finished 18th in what's expected to be his final Daytona 500.

Kevin Harvick was seventh and was followed by Matt Kenseth, last year's race winner, Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya, McMurray's teammate.

Contributing: Wire reports

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Posted 2/14/2010 7:38 PM ET
Updated 2/15/2010 11:32 PM ET
Jamie McMurray emerges from his car in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway after securing his first Daytona 500 victory. Jamie McMurray emerges from his car in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway after securing his first Daytona 500 victory.

By Kevin Liles, US Presswire