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.
They were all drained by a six-hour marathon with two long red flags to repair a hole in the track, two green-white-checkered overtimes and a record number of leaders.
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.
What distinguished McMurray as the winner of the wildest NASCAR season opener in recent memory was his uncontrollable weeping afterward first in Victory Lane, then again, even more, fully an hour later at the winner’s interview.
Amidst his sobs he recalled “where I was last year,” squeezed out by Roush Fenway Racing to cut its teams to the new NASCAR limit of four cars. Then he choked out gratitude for owners “Chip [Ganassi] and Felix [Sabates] … to take a chance on me and let me come back, it means a lot to me.”
Again in the media center, McMurray simply broke down, buried his face in his hands and was unable to speak for a good minute, while Ganassi spoke of the no-brainer decision to hire him as “the best available driver” in the silly season shuffle last fall.
McMurray was the 21st and last of the race-record parade of different leaders, leading only the final two laps in the second overtime. Never had a Daytona 500 winner led this few laps.
Without the two long intermissions, the race might have just gone out of control. It nearly was anyway.