DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.-In its zeal to reclaim an eroding fan base with its highly touted "back to basics" approach to stock-car racing, NASCAR overlooked one very basic thing: a racetrack that didn't erode during its marquee event.
The season-opening Daytona 500 was halted twice Sunday, for a total of 2 hours 23 minutes so track workers could patch potholes in the surface of Daytona International Speedway-a calamity that nearly overshadowed Jamie McMurray's improbable victory in a wild scramble on the final lap more than six hours after the race began.
McMurray, who lost his job at the end of last season, spun his Chevrolet in smoke-spewing circles of glee on the frontstretch grass after taking the checkered flag, then hopped out to grab the flag as a memento and dropped to his knees, buried his helmeted head in the grass and pounded the ground.
"It's unreal," McMurray said, breaking down in tears in Victory Lane after seeing his father and his wife waiting to congratulate him. "It's a dream."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. staged a thrilling show of his own, rallying from 10th to second over the final 10 laps of mayhem. Greg Biffle came home third.
"When I saw the 88 (Earnhardt Jr.) behind me, I thought, 'Oh no!' " McMurray said. "Earnhardts-they win all the time at Daytona!"
But the fiasco of the fissures that erupted between the speedway's first and second turns, and the failure to fix them in a timely manner, amounted to a huge black eye on NASCAR's biggest occasion-equivalent to the NFL halting the Super Bowl in the fourth quarter because a goalpost collapsed and taking 2 hours to right it.
In an interview during the first delay, Brian France, NASCAR's chairman and chief executive, told FOX broadcasters that soggy conditions and unseasonably cold weather were preventing the typical patching compounds from setting.
"Normally we would have had it resolved a lot quicker," said France, whose grandfather founded NASCAR.
"That is the problem. The good news is we will get it solved."
After a one-hour 41-minute halt to the action, the racing resumed with 78 laps to go, with Clint Bowyer leading, followed by David Ragan and Kasey Kahne.
But the patching job didn't hold. So after 36 more laps of racing, NASCAR officials red-flagged the race again, ordering drivers to bring their cars down pit road and park them one more time.
At that point, Lap 160, Kevin Harvick was out front, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Bowyer on his tail.
Earnhardt Jr. had joked during the first delay that NASCAR officials should just put orange cones over the track's gashes and tell drivers to dodge them as they whipped around the 2 1/2-mile oval at 190 miles per hour.
With the problems persisting, it seemed a plausible solution. Harvick, meantime, was rooting for NASCAR officials to simply declare the race over and hand him the trophy.
But the action resumed at 6:31 p.m., with NASCAR ordering the first stint to be run under the yellow caution flag, at 70 mph, as a precaution.
All but Scott Speed ducked into the pits for new tires and gas, which gave Speed the lead.
NASCAR dropped the green flag on Lap 168, signaling a return to full-speed racing for the 33-lap sprint to the finish.
In the frenzy that ensued, four-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson blew a tire and finished 35th.
A three-car pileup erupted on the backstretch with six laps to go. Among those involved was 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.
Shortly after Bowyer brought the field to green, leading with two laps to go, another wreck broke out.
Biffle had wrested the lead by then, but under NASCAR's new rule guaranteeing three attempts at a green-flag finish (rather than ending the race under a caution), NASCAR lined the cars up again.
Harvick darted low and got around Biffle, whose car was nearly turned sideways in the process.
While broadcasters pointed to the more than 50 lead changes and furious side-by-side racing, the 52nd Daytona 500 fell far short of the fan-pleasing show NASCAR officials had hoped to stage.
With TV ratings steadily declining in recent years, NASCAR made significant changes to its rulebook on the eve of the Daytona 500 expressly to win fans back.
Among them: They gave the cars more horsepower and, in turn, more speed, to put the premium on handling and driver skill; they also rescinded a ban on the risky practice of bump-drafting, in which a driver intentionally rams the car in front to create an aerodynamic boost through traffic.
As NASCAR's director of competition Ryan Pemberton told drivers in announcing the green-light to bump-drafting: "Have at it, boys!"
The upshot, NASCAR promised, would be a return to the sort of stock-car racing that fans fell in love with a generation ago, featuring plenty of fender-rubbing and paint-swapping.
Nostalgia was in the air from the start.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, 72, drove the pace car that led the 43-car field to the green flag.
A replica of Junior Johnson's 1960 Daytona 500-winning Chevrolet made a parade lap, with the 78-year-old Johnson, the one-time moonshine-running, stock-car racing legend, serving as the race's grand marshal.
The first caution came out just eight laps into the 200-lap event, when Brad Keselowski's Dodge darted up track hearing into Turn 2, smacked the wall and collected five others.
Jeff Gordon, who had been forced to start at the rear of the field after wrecking his primary car during Thursday's qualifying race, barely scooted by unscathed.
Earnhardt Jr. gave the crowd something to cheer about when he seized the lead on lap 14.
A tire failure flung John Andretti's car hard into the Turn 2 wall with 80 laps to go, just as Jimmie Johnson felt his own right-front tire deflate. Johnson ducked into the pits for a quick change.
Moments later, NASCAR red-flagged the race so track workers could repair the first gash that was spotted on the asphalt.