DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jamie McMurray held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Daytona 500 on Sunday, 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 total 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.
Hoping for a spectacular season-opener to re-energize the industry, the delays instead sent NASCAR chairman Brian France into the broadcast booth to calm an agitated audience.
In the end, though, the hole inadvertently improved the racing.
The action picked up tremendously after the second patch was applied, partly because 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 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.