This Daytona 500 had something for everyone -- except a time limit
Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray made the most of his two laps led
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. displayed some of the moxie of his father down the stretch
Kevin Harvick was the X-factor in McMurray winning ... and Greg Biffle falling short
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The major gripe for NASCAR fans last season -- in the midst of a major dip in ratings and attendance -- was the racing had gotten too boring.
Well, if the sport succeeded in one thing Sunday, it was removing that word from everyone's vocabulary for at least a couple of weeks.
Sunday's Daytona 500 may not have been the greatest in recent memory, but it clearly qualified as the wildest. With a record 21 different leaders, two red flags for a giant pothole -- literally -- and a surprise winner who didn't even lead until the final two laps, there were more twists and turns than your local Valentine's Day breakup.
Here are five things to take away from this year's Great American Race:
1. This track needs to be repaved -- ASAP. NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl should always be remembered for the racing. But this year, thousands of fans who left the track early will simply remember a turn 2 hole of cracking pavement -- one that also cracked a heart-sized hole in their love for the sport.
It all started on Lap 118, when a simple crash by John Andretti quickly ballooned into something more. Several drivers started complaining of a hole on the track, estimated by Daytona Speedway President Robin Braig as 9x15x2 inches. That's about the size of a shoeprint, but its initial impact on the race was more like Bigfoot: A 1-hour, 40-minute red flag to fix the damage.
"It couldn't have been in a worse spot," said Braig, claiming it was the only part of the track that gets no sun, a deadly combination for unseasonably cold weather and asphalt that hasn't been repaved since 1978. "We're not sure whether we had pavement failure or [if] a car dug into it and lifted the pavement out. We have to evaluate that."
But where the track already took its final exam -- and failed -- is fixing the problem the first time. With officials trying three different ways to fix the patch, the solution they settled on failed after just 39 laps, causing a second red flag for nearly 45 minutes, once the patch came up a second time. It took a desperation move -- the track borrowing a plaster-like material called Bondo from several teams, mixing it up into a white, gooey solution, and then applying it -- to find a fix that would last the distance.
Still, there were some drivers who claimed nothing worked.
"The [substance] kept coming out," said four-time season champ Jimmie Johnson, who possibly broke an axle due to the depth of the hole and fell to 35th. "We were all dodging it."
Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't so politically correct, claiming on the radio the track was in need of a major revamp. "There's 2.5 miles of hole in this track. It's so damn slick ... it shouldn't be like that," complained Earnhardt during the first red flag. "It's 2010: wake up!"
Earnhardt backed off those comments later, after his runner-up finish, but insisted a repave was the best possible fix. "They should have [done] it years ago," he said. "We'd have it all weathered and ready to go right now. It's due."
Just don't expect Daytona to bend to his will. The track is scheduled for a fix-up in 2012, but Braig insists they won't make any rash decisions to move up the project based on one race. "It may not need repaving," he claimed. "We've been told by the drivers, crew chiefs, NASCAR, Goodyear, that the uniqueness of this track is special. We saw how many lead changes [52, third-most all-time] there were. We don't want to paint the whole house when all we have to do is a touch up."
Braig might have a problem saying that to the thousands of fans who left early, though. They surely didn't pay for a ticket to NASCAR's Super Bowl only to see it stopped in the third quarter, and they won't be getting a refund for that inconvenience, either. TV ratings are also likely to take a hit, with the race stretching long past sunset and the 7 p.m. (ET) hour.
"We'll reach out to them and speak to them individually," Braig said of the fans. "We'll hear their concerns and make sure they understand [that] we'll fix the problem."
But for those weary of several NASCAR bobbles over the past few years, there may be no answer that suits them -- and the incident was clearly unacceptable. SI.com's Brant James said it best, tweeting during the mess, "This reminds me of that time they had to stop the Super Bowl because the field caved in. Oh, wait. That never happened."
2. Earnhardt has his mojo back. At the end of the day, the stats sheet will say Earnhardt started second and finished second; but boy, was there some slicing and dicing in between. After leading four laps early, Earnhardt faded from his front-row starting spot to outside the top 20 after the first round of green-flag stops -- where he would stay until the final 150 miles. Even when Junior made a final pit stop for tires under caution on Lap 196, most considered him, sitting about 15th, an afterthought for the win.
But in one of the wildest moves in recent history -- jogging memories of his father's wild dash to win Talladega 10 years ago -- he moved from 15th to 10th to 2nd over the final two laps on fresh tires, pulling off moves that would make your grandmother blush.
"It was all a blur," he said of his exciting last-lap dash. "If there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best." In the end, Junior ended up a car length short of his second Daytona 500 victory. But there's clearly a silver lining in his first runner-up finish since Talladega last April, injecting him with a boost of confidence to start fresh in 2010.
"It's just one race," he cautioned, claiming Fontana (Calif.) next week will be a better gauge for how much the No. 88 has improved. But if his team can channel this momentum the right way, a year's worth of frustration is poised to melt in front of their eyes.