Chances are, when Ward Burton was a kid in South Boston, Va., dreaming of making a late-race pass to win the Daytona 500, the car he pictured himself driving had its engine turned on. So imagine his surprise on Sunday when he went to the front of the field five laps from the finish of the Great American Race while sitting on the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway, as still as a gridlocked commuter on I-95, his engine shut off. A few feet away Sterling Marlin, who had moments before beaten Burton to the start-finish line on what looked to be the final lap under the green flag, hopped from his car and tugged a piece of sheet metal from his right front tire.
Such fender bending when the race is stopped is a NASCAR no-no, and Marlin was penalized by being dropped to the tail end of the lead lap. Now the lead was Burton's, and after the closing five laps were finally run—the only laps Burton led all day—so was the 500, which was more a battle of attrition than a race. "We try to be smart," Burton said after the race. "At the same time, like [crew chief Tommy Baldwin] always says, we try to drive it like we stole it."
Following the eighth caution of the day, it appeared the race would be a six-lap shootout to the finish. However, as the drivers took the green flag, Mark Martin, sitting in ninth place, rear-ended Michael Waltrip, setting off a chain reaction. The drivers in front of the wreck assumed the race would end under the ensuing yellow flag, meaning that whoever got to the start-finish line first on this lap would be the winner. With no time to waste, Marlin tried to duck under leader Jeff Gordon in Turn 1. Gordon dropped down to block him but clipped the front of Marlin's car and spun himself out of contention.
That set up the mad dash to the line between Marlin and Burton, who had been third. Marlin won the sprint by inches, but rather than let the race end under caution NASCAR decided to throw the red flag and have the cars stop on the backstretch until the track was cleaned up. That meant the outcome would be determined by real racing, which raised a problem for Marlin. When he'd bumped Gordon he'd dented his right front fender, causing it to rub against the tire. Racing with the car in that condition would have been impossible, so Marlin—who had no option but try to pull a fast one, because he would otherwise have had to pit—got out and fixed it. "I saw [Dale] Earnhardt do it at Richmond in 1987," Marlin said. "He got out and cleaned off his windshield, so I thought it was O.K. I don't guess it was." No, it wasn't. Burton took the lead by default and, with the second-place car of Elliott Sadler not up to making a serious run at him, held on to win one of the strangest Daytonas ever.
Burton's hometown of South Boston, Va., is known for the fried-bologna burger. On the Monday before the race Sadler, who grew up in nearby Emporia, was standing at a grill outside a Ford hospitality tent on the Daytona infield, demonstrating how to cook one of these culinary delights. After disclosing the secret ingredient—"butter, and lots of it"—he discussed the proper thickness of the bologna slice. "Just like the Fords. We want a quarter of an inch."
Earlier that day, after much complaining from the Ford teams, NASCAR had trimmed that amount from the height of the Fords' rear spoilers in an effort to get them up to speed with the Chevrolets, which had dominated practice for the 500. That tinkering failed to get the intended result, though, so on Friday—two days before the race—NASCAR again sliced the Ford spoilers by the height of a bologna burger.
Some Chevy teams were less than pleased that they were seemingly being punished for being fast. "I don't think NASCAR should have helped Ford that much," said Chevy driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he lounged on the steps of his hauler shortly after the first reduction was announced. "It seems like you can work on your car a little harder and maybe get a little more speed out of it. It's disappointing that NASCAR would wait this late to make a change. It's like, get your s—together."
The changes played a significant role on race day. The Fords, and to a lesser extent the Dodges, which also got a one-quarter-inch reduction in their spoilers on Friday, kept pace with the Chevys, given the reduced drag afforded by the lower spoilers. That, plus the return to a tighter restrictor plate after last year's awful high-speed crashes, meant the racing was as closely packed as ever. The resulting constant bumping and blocking caused a series of spinouts and pileups and served as a reminder of the dilemma NASCAR faces in attempting to devise rules for superspeedways that can keep its drivers safe while creating racing that its fans enjoy. "Sliding across the infield at 160 mph with no brakes and no right rear tire—that was cool," said Earnhardt, who had two tires blow up on him during the race. "A lot of neat things happened this weekend."
Nearly every car was dented or torn somewhere, and there wasn't an unused roll of duct tape to be found. Drivers weren't afraid to blame the measures put in place to keep them safe. "The cars are going so slow," said Ricky Rudd, standing next to his mangled Ford, which failed to complete the race. "It feels like you're running about 60 miles an hour, so everybody feels like a hero and takes a lot of chances. That's the biggest problem."
When drafting in closely bunched groups, drivers are seldom passed by only one car. Open the door a crack and a whole line of rivals will storm by. With the restrictor plates, getting enough speed to catch up is tough. The easiest strategy is to keep the cars behind you—no matter what the cost. "The downfall of this restrictor-plate package is you've got to block," said Daytona 500 rookie Kevin Harvick, "because if you get hung out, you have to go to the back and start over again."