It was a final lap for the ages. And while Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought everyone, from the fans in the stands to the writers in the media center to their feet with a daring charge that took him from 10th to second in the last two-and-a-half miles, all he could do was push Jamie McMurray (who just a few laps earlier had pulled a daring pass of his own on Kevin Harvick) to a surprising victory in the Daytona 500… one that came in McMurray’s first race after a reunion with owner Chip Ganassi. McMurray was overcome with emotion in his post-race press conference, breaking down into tears during the Q&A.
Said co-owner Felix Sabates of his driver’s efforts, which fell on Valentine’s Day, “[Saturday] night, [Jamie] told me ‘I love you brother,’ and he really must, because he brought us a Daytona 500 victory.”
The win, McMurray’s second at Daytona but first in the 500, capped an exhausting day at Daytona that saw over six hours pass between the drop of the green flag early Sunday afternoon and the checkers falling under the lights. The race was delayed by two red flags for nearly three hours after a section of asphalt in between turns 1 and 2 came loose. The original patchwork, applied during a one hour and 40 minute red flag, did not hold, necessitating an additional 46 minutes of repairs. Track officials reported that the track was inspected on Sunday morning and that no problems were found, further citing the unusually cold temperatures in Daytona Beach for causing the delays. The cooler temperatures and shade on that section of the race track reportedly made the material used to patch the track cool too quickly.
The resulting delays derailed what had the makings of a momentum-building weekend for NASCAR. In front of a sellout crowd, the new restrictor-plate package produced solid racing through the field, as well as a record number of different leaders (21) and the third most lead changes ever seen at Daytona (52). But with the race going hours and hours beyond schedule on a chilly day in Florida, tens of thousands of fans were seen heading for the parking lot early. A number of drivers expressed frustration with the situation as well, with Dale Jr., a longtime critic of the racing surface at Daytona referring to the track as a “s***hole.”
But while the issues with the track had a negative impact on the sport’s Super Bowl, another of the recent rule changes helped both Daytona and NASCAR to, in the words of Daytona International Speedway President Robin Braig, “…certainly dodge a bullet with a great, exciting finish.” NASCAR’s new rules allowing for three tries at a green-white-checkered finish came into play, as McMurray’s narrow win with Dale Jr. running him down came on the second attempt at securing a green-flag finish.
After a late wreck that saw Bill Elliott and Joey Logano tangle in turn 3 even as race leader Biffle had the white flag in sight, the first attempt at a GWC saw Biffle start up front, only to quickly lose the lead when third-place Harvick moved to the high side and shoved Martin Truex Jr. to the front. Meanwhile, Harvick pulled a crossover move on Truex, who tried in vain to come down ahead of the No. 29, only to clip his right front and slide up the track. Harvick retained the lead heading down the backstretch before Jeff Gordon rammed into Kasey Kahne on the exit of turn 2, collecting Robert Richardson Jr. and putting the race back under yellow.
The second attempt at a GWC proved to be the charm. Harvick and McMurray started side by side on the front row, and the final two laps were a drag race between the two. Though Dale Jr. made a daring three-wide move that allowed him to get to McMurray’s bumper heading down the frontstretch, it wasn’t enough.
Behind McMurray and Earnhardt, Biffle, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann rounded out the top five. Jimmie Johnson was running in the top 10 late in the going before suffering a broken rear end on lap 185. He finished 35th.