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Thrilling finish saves NASCAR from pothole debacle


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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There's nothing NASCAR can do to overcome the embarrassment that comes when a pothole nearly swallows the biggest race of the year.

That pesky hole in the pavement stalled the Daytona 500 two different times for more than two hours total, and created the unforgettable image of yellow-clad track workers slopping a pink puddy-like filler into a torn patch of pavement at Daytona International Speedway.

Television viewers across America changed their channels, while fans in attendance streamed toward the gates.

They had every right to turn away.

But they're probably regretting it now.

Tuning out of Sunday's season-opening race meant missing a finish that will go down as one of the best in NASCAR history. There were three attempts to run a two-lap sprint to the finish, and the racing that led to Jamie McMurray beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. was simply breathtaking.

Greg Biffle saw his shot at victory wiped out by the first of two late cautions, setting up a green-white-checkered overtime attempt. Kevin Harvick shoved Martin Truex Jr. to the lead, then nearly wrecked the field when he darted in front of Biffle for his own attempt at the win. The second late caution snatched Harvick's near-win away, and set up a sequence of racing that left seasoned NASCAR viewers speechless.

McMurray and Harvick raced each other for the lead, with McMurray using a huge push from good friend Biffle to claim the lead. Carl Edwards made it three-wide behind them to tighten the pack, and give Earnhardt a chance to make some eye-popping moves through the field.

Earnhardt, a 12-time Daytona winner, dodged and darted his way through traffic. He shoved his Chevrolet between Biffle and Clint Bowyer, nearly losing control before sliding out into his own clean air. McMurray, who had put some space on the pack, suddenly had Earnhardt breathing down on his bumper.

He'd driven from 10th to second in one lap, and no one could believe what they were witnessing.

"Like most people, he came out of nowhere for me," winning car owner Chip Ganassi said. "When I saw him coming, I was like "Is he on the lead lap? Where's he coming from?' My point being, he came from nowhere, and good for him."

Earnhardt, mired in a horrendous slump that has tested his confidence and frustrated his enormous fan base, ran out of time to chase down McMurray and had to settle for second. The joyous McMurray, embarking on a second chance of sorts with Ganassi, twice broke down in tears in a show of raw emotion that clearly defined the natural reactions NASCAR has asked its drivers to express this season.

Did the unbelievable sequence of on-track racing and off-track excitement save the race? Absolutely.

Is it enough to overlook the pothole that nearly ruined the race? Maybe.

The next few weeks are critical for NASCAR, which is working overtime to re-energize the fan base through a series of tweaks both on and off the track. NASCAR officials have made competition adjustments to answer driver complaints about the car, and there's been a series of rule changes that are clear responses to fan frustrations.

The most notable recent change came just last week, when NASCAR recognized that finishing races under a caution flag was far from satisfying to a fan who had invested several hours into an event. The exhibition Budweiser Shootout that opened Speedweeks ended with Harvick coasting to the finish under yellow, protected from having to hold off a last-lap challenge.

So NASCAR adjusted the rule, agreeing to allow up to three opportunities to finish the race under green-flag conditions. The new rule was tested Sunday, twice, and undoubtedly helped script the finish.

NASCAR deserves a pat on the back for making the right calls, including the one to do everything possible to patch the Daytona hole so the race could run the full 500 miles.

Problem is, though, casual sports fans probably aren't considering the big picture. Instead, they are left with the image of a pothole being repaired in the middle of NASCAR's showcase event.

To those fringe followers, it was amateur hour. Again.

NASCAR has certainly made its share of mistakes over the last decade, and there are critics who are simply unable to forgive and forget. Some of those gaffes have created a stereotype that NASCAR is some sort of three-ring circus that, try as it might, just can't get anything right.

This isn't one of those cases, though.

Foreseeing a pothole was impossible, and ignoring it once it developed wasn't an option.

NASCAR could have simply called it a day after the first patch failed, sending everyone home 39 laps short of a complete race. Instead, it stood strong during an unfortunate circumstance and refused to waver in an embarrassing moment for the sport.

The end result was one heckuva race.

Sorry if you missed it.