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Race Coverage Daily & Internet
Second Place
Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Holey Big Finish!

            Daytona Beach, Fla. – A gaping hole threatened to suck up all the enthusiasm the dawn of a new season was to have brought to NASCAR.
            This would be the year of the fans, the frustrated faithful were told. They’d sent a clear message with their wallets and remote controls, and the series, the tracks and the teams all understood.
            They needed to listen. They needed to change. They needed new rules to create old-school racing and the sort of fun on which the sport mushroomed in the first place.
            Sure enough, you could feel the buzz.
            But then, on the biggest day of the season, in the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race, the track itself began to crumble and with it fans’ hope. Twice the race would be stopped, turning a sunny Sunday afternoon into a chilly evening and a 3 ½-hour show into a 6-hour marathon.
            Only great racing could save it, a crazy dash to the finish, maybe extra entertainment and an appreciative winner.
            That’s what the crowd got.
            In a classic bump-and-grind that lasted an extra eight laps, Jamie McMurray made all the right moves, collected the biggest prize of his racing career and won back the fans’ hearts.
            "Unbelievable," McMurray said. "Unbelievable.
            "Coming off of Turn 4, seeing the checkered flag, knowing there’s not going to be another green-white-checkered, you’re going to be the Daytona 500 champion, I can’t explain to you."
            As emotional as it was for McMurray, the finish was at least that important for NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway.
            Their premier event was a treat for the first half but then turned into a nightmare when a 9-by-15-by-2-inch pothole developed in a seam in the asphalt in Turn 2. The race was stopped twice for repairs, the first time for an hour 40 minutes, the second for another 45 minutes. Thousands of spectators left during the interruptions.
            The crew tried several patches before discovering the one that worked best was one of the most popular products in the garage, the dent-filler Bondo.
            "This is not supposed to happen," track President Robin Braig said.
            "This is hallowed ground. We understand that. We accept the responsibility."
            Engineers will try to determine whether the problem came from the asphalt itself or it stemmed from cars bottoming out as they bounced over the ripples.
            Daytona has not been repaved since 1978, and International Speedway Corporation was looking at resurfacing within the next several years. For the most part, drivers worry that fresh asphalt would make the track less racy.
            "We don’t want to paint the whole house when all we have to do is a little touchup," Braig said.
            What followed the second break was precisely the sort of racing NASCAR had promised, with anxious scrambling for each inch of racetrack and every position. Afterward, the inspection bay was filled with cars dented on the front and scraped along both sides during a 195-mph joust.
            In all, a record 21 drivers led, swapping the top spot 52 times.
            Two late accidents allowed NASCAR to test one new fan-friendly procedure.
            The sanctioning body announced Thursday it would try three times to have a race finish at speed rather than under the caution flag as long as the yellow flew before the leader took the white.
            Greg Biffle led when Bill Elliott and Joey Logano crashed on the 199th lap. Almost as soon as the race restarted and Kevin Harvick got past Biffle, the shoving behind them caused a multiple-car wreck.
            Then on the final green flag, after 206 laps, McMurray lined up second to the outside of Harvick, and Biffle provided the push McMurray needed. Harvick and Biffle each edged ahead over the next lap, but neither could clear him. McMurray took his first lead with a half-lap to go.
            Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 winner, charged through the middle – going from 10th to second in the final two laps – before falling just short.
            "I’ll be honest, I was like, crap, this guy has won a lot of races here," McMurray said of Earnhardt.
            "You can’t tell when you look out of the back of the car how fast they’re closing. … I was looking at the start/finish line, my mirror, the start/finish line, thinking, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be able to beat me to it.’
            "Then the flag stand is so bright, I couldn’t tell what flag they were waving either. We had so many green-white-checkereds, I didn’t know exactly what was going on at that point."
            Radio silence left McMurray wondering, did he win it? A moment later he knew.
            Earnhardt finished second and Biffle third, while Harvick drifted all the way back to seventh.
            After a tense 2009 season, when he was downsized by Roush Fenway Racing because of team size limits, McMurray had started his second term with Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates on the highest of high notes. The first of his four victories came with their team in 2002
            "I haven’t won a ton of races, and I thought, ‘I’m going to get out, stand on my car and listen to all these people scream,’ " McMurray said.
            Then he went to the flag stand to retrieve the checkered.
            "When I came back, running down the hill, I saw Daytona 500 painted in the grass," McMurray said. "I kneeled down. I was like, ‘This is just unreal right now.’"
            Unreal. And exactly what the start to 2010 needed.