Bruce Martin
Monday February 15th, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When NASCAR announced its 2010 season would be known for "Have at it, Boys," it didn't have in mind a road crew with shovels full of asphalt, filling a pothole on the race track of its biggest race. But that's how this year's Sprint Cup season began, and race officials can only hope things improve dramatically this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

The same could be said for Greg Biffle, who would have won the Daytona 500 if NASCAR hadn't revised its rules to attempt a maximum of three green-, white-, checkered-flag finishes. Biffle was in front of the field heading to the white flag at the end of lap 202, when Joey Logano, Bill Elliott and Boris Said crashed in the third turn. That brought out a caution and the need for a second green-white-checkered attempt, which Jamie McMurray took advantage of to win his first Daytona 500.

Biffle says his heart sank when he saw the yellow flag wave to signal another extra-lap session. "Yes, I was thinking, Why do I have to be the first candidate after the rule change to be the guy that didn't get the win? It's just the way it is. Like Junior [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] said, we got to race by the rules. That's what they've determined that we're going to do. We would have been fine if a couple of the guys on the restarts wouldn't have spun their tires. Every time I got going there, nobody was behind me. But that's the way it is. We got to go by the rules. I wish I was out there spraying some champagne right now."

Of the 180,000 fans who endured the lengthy red flag delays at Daytona 500, Danica Patrick wasn't one of them. She departed Daytona on Saturday after crashing out of her NASCAR Nationwide Series debut. She's scheduled to race in Saturday's Nationwide Series race in Fontana, Calif. Then she'll bolt to Birmingham, Ala., for the IZOD IndyCar Series pre-season test.

Interestingly, Patrick's highly-anticipated NASCAR debut in last Saturday's Nationwide race ended the same as her IndyCar Series debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2005. In a crash. And like the one five years ago, the most recent crash may actually help temper expectations about her career too.

"I remember my first year at Indy and I'm in the first couple of races, I do really well and everybody was like, 'Oh my gosh, she should be winning,' and then it takes another couple of years," Patrick said. "It's important to have realistic expectations. There are going to be spikes in performance, I don't doubt that, but there are going to be tough days. Today was, I would say, a more tough day. I wish I would have run up there at the beginning and felt more comfortable, but I just didn't, and that proves how hard it is out here and how much there is to learn and how good all these drivers really are."

Patrick wanted to use her first NASCAR race as a learning experience and that is exactly what she got -- a tough lesson in the art of stock car racing on a restrictor-plate race track. She started 15th, but after stalling in the pits on her second stop, was mired back in 36th. Then came the fateful 69th lap when 11 other cars began to crash on the frontstretch and ended up ruining her JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

"Some car got sideways and he caught it, it looked like, and I slowed down in the middle of Turn 4 because I saw it. I thought we were all under control again and then all of sudden you see smoke and I literally couldn't see a thing. That's the problem, if we could figure out how to make the tires have no smoke, I think there'd a lot less crashed race cars, but that's the inevitable of what's going to happen here. It's also a product of racing so close together, you don't give yourself any gap to take some open space or see anything. I was just caught up in an accident like so many other get at these big speedways."

Lost in the confusion of the two green-, white-, checkered-flag finishes and the broken pavement was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s dramatic run from 10th to second in the final two laps. He nearly made it all the way to the front, but finished 0.119 seconds behind race-winner McMurray.

"It was all a blur," Earnhardt said. "I was just going wherever they weren't. I really don't enjoy being that aggressive. But if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best. It was a lot of fun. It went by so fast; I couldn't really tell you the process. But I just remember going down the back straightaway and getting in between Greg Biffle, and I don't remember who was on the outside of me. We all kind of wiggled through that whole deal. Jamie got away from us. I didn't even know where I was. Then we got into three. I was counting in my head how many laps we ran. I knew we were coming to the checkered, I was running second, this is awesome, but it kind of sucks at the same time.

"It was frustrating to come that close. But, hell, we were running 22nd at the first 'green-white-checkered.'"

Earnhardt arrived at Daytona this year looking confident and secure, which led some to predict him to break out of his funk and win the Daytona 500. But after getting derailed with Brian Vickers in last Thursday's qualifying race and then crashing and landing on the roof of his car in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, it looked like Earnhardt had reverted back to last year's form.

He was off the radar for most of Sunday's race, leading just one time for four laps. That is why his dramatic drive at the end of the race was so surprising.

"I'm happy for my team," Earnhardt said. "They worked so hard. They made a good call at the end to put tires on. Everybody had 35 laps on their tires. That just made everybody with tires, even right-side, made them look like Superman. So it was a good call for them to make that choice. We weren't going anywhere otherwise."

Getting out of Daytona Beach. And while a five-hour flight to Los Angeles for this weekend's NASCAR race at Fontana is not something I look forward to, maybe it will give me a chance to clear my mind of the chaos of the past two weeks.

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