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This Daytona 500 had something for everyone -- except a time limit

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The major gripe for NASCAR fans last season -- in the midst of a major dip in ratings and attendance -- was the racing had gotten too boring.

Well, if the sport succeeded in one thing Sunday, it was removing that word from everyone's vocabulary for at least a couple of weeks.

Sunday's Daytona 500 may not have been the greatest in recent memory, but it clearly qualified as the wildest. With a record 21 different leaders, two red flags for a giant pothole -- literally -- and a surprise winner who didn't even lead until the final two laps, there were more twists and turns than your local Valentine's Day breakup.

Here are five things to take away from this year's Great American Race:

1. This track needs to be repaved -- ASAP. NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl should always be remembered for the racing. But this year, thousands of fans who left the track early will simply remember a turn 2 hole of cracking pavement -- one that also cracked a heart-sized hole in their love for the sport.

It all started on Lap 118, when a simple crash by John Andretti quickly ballooned into something more. Several drivers started complaining of a hole on the track, estimated by Daytona Speedway President Robin Braig as 9x15x2 inches. That's about the size of a shoeprint, but its initial impact on the race was more like Bigfoot: A 1-hour, 40-minute red flag to fix the damage.

"It couldn't have been in a worse spot," said Braig, claiming it was the only part of the track that gets no sun, a deadly combination for unseasonably cold weather and asphalt that hasn't been repaved since 1978. "We're not sure whether we had pavement failure or [if] a car dug into it and lifted the pavement out. We have to evaluate that."

But where the track already took its final exam -- and failed -- is fixing the problem the first time. With officials trying three different ways to fix the patch, the solution they settled on failed after just 39 laps, causing a second red flag for nearly 45 minutes, once the patch came up a second time. It took a desperation move -- the track borrowing a plaster-like material called Bondo from several teams, mixing it up into a white, gooey solution, and then applying it -- to find a fix that would last the distance.

Still, there were some drivers who claimed nothing worked.

"The [substance] kept coming out," said four-time season champ Jimmie Johnson, who possibly broke an axle due to the depth of the hole and fell to 35th. "We were all dodging it."

Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't so politically correct, claiming on the radio the track was in need of a major revamp. "There's 2.5 miles of hole in this track. It's so damn slick ... it shouldn't be like that," complained Earnhardt during the first red flag. "It's 2010: wake up!"

Earnhardt backed off those comments later, after his runner-up finish, but insisted a repave was the best possible fix. "They should have [done] it years ago," he said. "We'd have it all weathered and ready to go right now. It's due."

Just don't expect Daytona to bend to his will. The track is scheduled for a fix-up in 2012, but Braig insists they won't make any rash decisions to move up the project based on one race. "It may not need repaving," he claimed. "We've been told by the drivers, crew chiefs, NASCAR, Goodyear, that the uniqueness of this track is special. We saw how many lead changes [52, third-most all-time] there were. We don't want to paint the whole house when all we have to do is a touch up."

Braig might have a problem saying that to the thousands of fans who left early, though. They surely didn't pay for a ticket to NASCAR's Super Bowl only to see it stopped in the third quarter, and they won't be getting a refund for that inconvenience, either. TV ratings are also likely to take a hit, with the race stretching long past sunset and the 7 p.m. (ET) hour.

"We'll reach out to them and speak to them individually," Braig said of the fans. "We'll hear their concerns and make sure they understand [that] we'll fix the problem."

But for those weary of several NASCAR bobbles over the past few years, there may be no answer that suits them -- and the incident was clearly unacceptable. SI.com's Brant James said it best, tweeting during the mess, "This reminds me of that time they had to stop the Super Bowl because the field caved in. Oh, wait. That never happened."

2. Earnhardt has his mojo back. At the end of the day, the stats sheet will say Earnhardt started second and finished second; but boy, was there some slicing and dicing in between. After leading four laps early, Earnhardt faded from his front-row starting spot to outside the top 20 after the first round of green-flag stops -- where he would stay until the final 150 miles. Even when Junior made a final pit stop for tires under caution on Lap 196, most considered him, sitting about 15th, an afterthought for the win.

But in one of the wildest moves in recent history -- jogging memories of his father's wild dash to win Talladega 10 years ago -- he moved from 15th to 10th to 2nd over the final two laps on fresh tires, pulling off moves that would make your grandmother blush.

"It was all a blur," he said of his exciting last-lap dash. "If there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best." In the end, Junior ended up a car length short of his second Daytona 500 victory. But there's clearly a silver lining in his first runner-up finish since Talladega last April, injecting him with a boost of confidence to start fresh in 2010.

"It's just one race," he cautioned, claiming Fontana (Calif.) next week will be a better gauge for how much the No. 88 has improved. But if his team can channel this momentum the right way, a year's worth of frustration is poised to melt in front of their eyes.

3. Kevin Harvick changed the outcome of this race. During two green-white-checkered restarts, Harvick was what's called the "pusher" in the draft: The guy responsible for helping the car in front get up to speed. And both times, he made moves that ultimately paved the way for Jamie McMurray's victory. Some quick analysis:

On restart #1 (Lap 199), Harvick was in fourth, causing leader Clint Bowyer to choose the outside line for the No. 29 to push him through. Tucked together like a "choo-choo" train, the move worked like a charm, putting them 1-2 down the back straightaway and in position to settle things amongst themselves.

But Harvick failed to stay glued to his teammate's back bumper, and by the time the caution came a few seconds later, Harvick/Bowyer had fallen back to third and fifth, respectively. That launched a profanity-laced tirade by Bowyer on the radio, claiming Harvick's tactics almost forced them three-wide and killed a chance for the win.

Too bad that was just the tip of the iceberg, as Harvick's craziest move came during the ensuing restart. Coming to the line in 5th, he dove under his teammate, disposing of him and Greg Biffle ahead to enter the turn second behind Martin Truex. The NAPA Toyota tried to block, but Harvick's front fender won that battle, tapping his rear bumper in a move Truex called "dirty" over the radio. Still, the move left Harvick in front and seemingly in control to win his second 500 in three years.

Yet those battle scars came back to bite his Chevy once the caution flew once again, setting up a final restart that left eventual winner McMurray in second and the Ford of Carl Edwards in third. When the cars came up to speed, McMurray took off while Harvick failed to make a love connection with Edwards, dropping back to seventh by the finish after getting hung out to dry.

"I just wish we had somebody behind us who knew how to draft," Harvick said afterward, taking a public swipe at Edwards. But in the end, it was Harvick who probably made more people mad than anybody else.

4. The new plate racing rules worked like a charm. With a larger restrictor plate putting the focus on handling, not horsepower, this 500 turned into one of the most competitive in recent years. Most importantly, the rules stretched out the field on several occasions, minimizing the threat of the Big One that never came. "There was a ton of bumping out there, and I never felt once anybody was looking over my shoulder," said Earnhardt. "Everybody took care of everybody, as far as I know."

"I felt like we could push and shove more," added third-place runner Biffle. "The grip level is about perfect."

There were still a handful of isolated incidents at the track, but nothing too serious or involving more than a half-dozen cars. Considering the last three plate races have seen a driver flip or land on his roof, everyone can be thankful for that.

5. For Jamie McMurray, it's great to be home. Sunday set another record for the 500: The fewest laps led for any Daytona winner. McMurray paced the field for only the final two laps, but that was enough to put the underdog first in his No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.

It was the culmination of an awesome Speedweeks for McMurray, who finished third in the Bud Shootout and a solid sixth in the Gatorade Duel. In between was consistent praise for crew chief Kevin Manion, with both claiming the chemistry immediately clicked in their first few weeks of working together.

"[Kevin] has been one of the best surprises for me coming back," McMurray said Sunday night. "We have a lot in common. Close in age, same personalities. He's a racer." The trust between them was crucial Sunday, when Manion left him out on the track while other drivers came down pit road for fresh rubber on Lap 196. The gamble paid off, with McMurray able to use his drafting skills to blow by the competition and come from 7th to 1st in that final stretch -- causing the biggest outburst of tears in Victory Lane since Jeff Gordon won for the first time at Charlotte in 1994.

"I don't know that I've cried like that," McMurray said, breaking down several more times in the media center. "It just means so much."

The win puts the perfect final touch on a homecoming for the 33-year-old, signed for a second stint with Chip Ganassi in November. The duo had success together from 2002 to '05, and is poised to contend for the Chase once again. But the crazy thing about it all -- the signing almost didn't happen. Executives at Ganassi's sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, were concerned McMurray (not exactly an avid outdoorsman) wouldn't be the perfect fit for their company.

You wonder how they feel now that their driver has won the Daytona 500.

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