For the first two thirds of the race on Sunday, though, McMurray's problems had nothing to do with power. His car was handling so poorly, sliding all over the track, that he didn't think he even had a shot at the top 10. His father, Jim, was so convinced that McMurray wouldn't challenge for the win that he left the speedway before the race was over. Sabates was crestfallen. EGR had only enough sponsorship for McMurray to run about 21 of the 36 points-paying races this season. The 500 was the team's opportunity to showcase what they were capable of on NASCAR's biggest stage, and now McMurray was floundering in the middle of the pack.
But then McMurray caught a break: A two-inch-deep, nine-by-15-inch hole in the track, which hasn't been repaved since 1978, developed off Turn 2. This forced NASCAR to stop the race with 78 laps remaining to patch the pothole, which was the equivalent of resodding the field in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. After a delay of one hour and 40 minutes, the race resumed. Driver Greg Biffle succinctly summed up what everyone at the speedway—fans, crewmen, drivers, even vendors—thought about having to wait and watch a white gooey type of epoxy dry over the hole: "It sucked."
After the cars rolled back onto the track, 2007 race winner Kevin Harvick—who, like McMurray, was powered by an Earnhardt-Childress engine—dominated. He appeared headed for Victory Lane again when the pothole reappeared after only 39 laps of racing. NASCAR threw another red flag, which lasted nearly 45 minutes. As drivers ate sandwiches on pit road and crewmen played Madden NFL 10 in their pit stalls to kill the time, the sun sank into the horizon and the temperature dropped several degrees, into the mid-40s. This caused the track conditions to change. No longer sun-baked, the track grew cooler and less slick, which suddenly gave drivers like McMurray, who had struggled to find grip throughout the afternoon, new life. His tires began to stick to the asphalt no matter how fast he blasted through the turns.
"The hole in the track ended up helping us," said McMurray, who led fewer laps (two) than any winner in the history of the 500. "Because of the change in the temperature, the car came to us. And that was huge."
McMurray uttered these words while standing in Victory Lane an hour after the checkered flag had waved. A golf cart waited nearby to carry him into the night. This wasn't the most thrilling 500, and it is likely to be remembered more for cracks in the track than for anything McMurray did behind the wheel, but the driver had every reason to keep flashing a smile that looked equal parts happiness and relief as he disappeared from the winner's circle.
Why? "We didn't just win the Daytona 500," Sabates explained. "For us, it's bigger than that. For us, this is going to lead to new sponsors, new opportunities. For us, that's the power of winning this race. For us, that's the beauty of the Daytona 500."
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For race previews by Lars Anderson and for Tom Bowles's Inside NASCAR, go to SI.com/racing