“It's unbelievable, I can't really put into words how it feels,” said Jamie McMurray after winning the Daytona 500 Sunday in his first ever start in a Chevrolet and first race with race with new employers Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
It was a tearful McMurray who climbed from his Bass Pro Shops backed car in Victory Lane at NASCAR's most famous track, having survived first 500 miles in the drafting then the final two laps in the lead, the fewest ever by a Daytona 500 winner.
McMurray took the first of a possible three Green-White-Chequered restarts in sixth, with a deal between him and RCR/EGR engine-mate Harvick to partner each other to the front. However as the field entered turn one Harvick dived below Martin Truex Jr. for the lead and as the pair, along with Greg Biffle behind them, did everything but spin out McMurray was able to follow Harvick into second.
But those behind the shenanigans for the lead were not so lucky, and drivers checked-up to avoid the near accident in front it was Kasey Kasey Kahne who was spat out of the lower line onto the apron, and spinning was collected by the no.38 of Robert Richardson Jr. to bring out the yellow flag and force a second G-W-C finish.
That saw the Harvick/McMurray alliance split up, Harvick, who had won the Budweiser Shootout the previous week opting to lead the restart from the lower line with Carl Edwards behind him, while McMurray's No.1 car had Biffle and Truex trying to return to the front.
The race, ultimately was won on the backstretch.
Edwards pulled out from behind Harvick while Biffle stayed glued to McMurray's bumper and along with Truex the three were able to pull clear in turn three.
On the white flag lap Biffle made an abortive bid for the lead, nosing ahead through turns one and two before Chevrolets once more teamed up, Clint Bowyer now providing McMurray's push. Behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. was making a very late bid for the lead, with a distinct shove from Michael Waltrip Racing's David Reutimann the crowd favourite dissected Bowyer and Biffle and took second place.
However, as Reutimann founded in the middle of turn three Earnhardt could do nothing more than follow McMurray through the tri-oval and be the first off his congratulations to the Missouri native.
It was a thrilling finish to a race that frequently seemed to be going down in history for all the wrong reasons.
The race was red flagged twice, cumulatively for over two hours, because of the track breaking up between turn one and two bringing the finish under lights despite the much publicised earlier start time.
NASCAR officials spent over an hour and half initially fixing the track, their task complicated by the relatively cold, wet weather Daytona has had recently, including the rain that saw all of Friday's on-track activity scrapped.
With the track patched the race was on again, but just 36 laps later the read flag was back out after the hole opened up again.
“The problem is [the hole] is right in the middle of the right-side tires so when you go through there and you hit it wrong, the jackposts and everything hits,” said Harvick while waiting for the second red flag to be lifted.
The hole was once more fixed, with a different patch material over a wider area and although Denny Hamlin described the hole as starting to appear again in the closing laps it caused no further problems.
It is, however, debateable as to how big an affect it had on the result. Jimmie Johnson and John Andretti both had flat right side tyres shortly before the first red flag, ending Andretti's day and forcing Johnson to pit while the pitlane was closed and the front splitter on Clint Bowyer's car had a chunk taken out if.
The hole may also have played a part in the early retirement of Jimmie Johnson.
On lap 183 the reigning champion slowed, crabbing towards the tri-oval and initially blaming the problem on the whole, after struggling round an entire lap Johnson pitted, still under green, but was quickly taken behind the with a rear axel problem.
“It's hard to say, I don't think so,” he said when asked post-race whether he had indeed hit the hole. “We’d been hitting it with the right side tires and something in the left side broke. So I don’t think it was that.”
Aside from the hole the racing was just as would be expected around Daytona. Much of the race was spent in double file lines, a third, middle, line only emerging in the closing laps and even then with not much success.
The race saw 52 lead changes, just under the record of 60 between 21 different drivers, a Daytona record and though Kevin Harvick, credited with the five bonus points for leading the most led a total of 41 laps the race also saw some more surprising drivers have cameos at the front of the field.
These were doubtless led by Scott Speed who opted not to pit before restarting after the second red flag most of the field took at least two tyres. Despite this Speed showed the same ability Johnson did in the qualifying races to remain up front with worn tyres, the former F1 driver leading 11 laps as he fought with Greg Biffle for the lead as the two led the drafting trains.
However, the cameos were led by the Fords. Kenseth was the only one of the Roush drivers not to lead a lap and all three RPM Dodge converts – Elliott Sadler, Kahne and A.J. Allmendinger – lead laps, though the latter two would see promising finishes thwarted by accidents.
In fact, the only part of normal Daytona races that was missing was 'The Big One', the largest accident of the day being a lap 8 crash that took out Regan Smith and Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. when Keselowski span with a flat tyre and left Smith and Hornish with no escape.
The relaxed rules on bump drafting failed to spark an accident, and affected the racing as they should.