Jamie McMurray scripted a storybook ending to Sunday’s Daytona 500. It’s too bad the plot to get there was so full of holes. On a track where crumbling asphalt caused almost 2 1/2 hours of delays, McMurray persevered to win NASCAR’s biggest race, holding off a furious charge by the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., on the final lap.
After tearing up the turf in the tri-oval with doughnuts, McMurray got out of his car and sprinted to the flagstand to grab the checkered flag. He then dropped to his knees in the grass and pounded his fist into the ground, savoring the moment.
"Unbelievable. Unbelievable," McMurray said in Victory Lane, tearing up as he tried to gather himself. "I told my wife today, she was like ‘If you win tonight …’ oh, I am going to cry … it is so unreal.
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“I thought if I made it without seeing my dad or my wife, I’d be OK. It is unbelievable really. I can’t explain it. It is a dream. I mean it really it is.”
Much of the six hours and 12 minutes it took to reach the checkered flag was more like a nightmare. The extensive delays caused many fans to pack up and leave.
The asphalt began breaking up on the seam between Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 122.
The race was red-flagged and workers attempted repairs. Getting the patch to stick well enough to resume the race took an hour and 40 minutes.
Thirty-nine laps later, the race was stopped again for the same reason. This time, the fix took 44 minutes.
Speedway President Robin Braig admitted the track was ill-prepared to deal with the situation. “We’re the World Center of Racing,” Braig said. “This is not supposed to happen. This is hallowed ground.
"We accept the responsibility. We gotta get better doing our patchwork. If we have to do it again, we have to figure out the compound and really gotta understand the temperature and the heat of the pavement. We just couldn’t get it to bond.”
Earnhardt said he believes the track was overdue for a repaving.
“They should have repaved it several years ago,” Earnhardt said. “We’d have it all weathered and ready to go right now. It would be in good shape. But it will get there again one day. It wasn’t paved — hasn’t been paved since 1978. It’s due, I would say.”
Braig said there are no plans to repave the 2.5-mile track.
“Dale Jr. has not liked our pavement for years,” Braig said. “We listen to our sanctioning body and Goodyear. We take the drivers’ and the crew chiefs’ concerns. We mix that in with a lot of decision-makers.
“But we don’t think it’s time to repave unless we find out something different after we evaluate it this week. We’ve got engineers all over this. You know how many people are waiting in line to get out there and see that in the morning?”
When there was racing, it was competitive. The field was using bigger restrictor plates and operating without bump-drafting restrictions. The front row consisted of perennial favorite Mark Martin on the pole, with Earnhardt beside him.
There were a record 21 lead changes, including seven on the final 32 laps after the last red flag. Scott Speed took the point when he decided not to pit when the leaders came in on Lap 164. But he wouldn’t hold it for long.
Speed and Greg Biffle dueled for the lead after the restart, but without fresh tires, Speed fell back.
Biffle had passed Clint Bowyer for the lead when Bill Elliott and Joey Logano collided in Turn 3 with two laps to go. That set up a green-white-checkered finish. It wouldn’t be the last one.
Kevin Harvick restarted fourth on Lap 202 behind Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Bowyer, but swept down to the inside and took the lead in Turn 1 during the first attempt at a green-flag finish. Before Harvick could reach the white flag, Jeff Gordon nailed Kasey Kahne, causing a three-car collision on the backstretch.
Harvick led the field around to set up the second attempt at a green-flag finish on Lap 206. Harvick was flanked by McMurray, with his former Roush Fenway teammates Edwards and Biffle behind. Biffle pushed McMurray to the lead through Turns 1 and 2 and the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet bolted down the back straight, picking up Earnhardt and Biffle in tow to the finish.
It was McMurray’s fourth career win and second at Daytona, following his victory in the 2007 July race here. It came in his first race back with his original Sprint Cup owners, Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, after four years with Roush Fenway Racing. He’ll never forget this one.
"I’m trying to be genuine and as sincere as I can and not sound cliche," McMurray said. "As a kid growing up, this is what you dream of, of being able to win the Daytona 500."