Jamie McMurray won the 52nd annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 but it took three green, white, checkered flag attempts and a heart-stopping finish from Dale Earnhardt Jr before McMurray claimed the crown.
After two red flags to repair a hole in the track's bumpy surface, McMurray wound up in the front pack when it came to the two-lap showdown for NASCAR's biggest prize.
It was an unlikely win for McMurray, who drove for Chip Ganassi's NASCAR squad before switching to Roush Fenway Racing, only to be dumped by the Ford team at the end of 2009 when NASCAR forced Jack Roush to scale back to four teams.
Ganassi, now in partnership with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, re-hired McMurray to replace MWR-bound Martin Truex Jr in the #1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy and in his first race back with his old team, an emotional McMurray took the biggest win of his career.
“It's unbelievable – I can't really put it into words the way it feels,” said McMurray, who was in tears in Victory Lane post-race.
“I talked to my wife this morning. She was like, you know, What would it mean to you if you won this race today?
“I told her it would be like a dream come true. I'm trying to be genuine and as sincere as I can and not sound cliché. As a kid growing up, this is what you dream of, of being able to win the Daytona 500.
“I won the July race here, really close race with Kyle. Coming off of turn four, seeing the checkered flag, knowing there's not going to be another ‘green white checkered', you're going to be the Daytona 500 champion, I can't explain to you.
“It's very emotional. I don't know that I've cried like that. I've kept trying to compose myself. I couldn't get it back.
“It just means so much. You know, for me to be in the position that I was four or five months ago, to have Chip and Felix and Bass Pro Shops welcome me into their organisation, it means a lot. It's a great way for me to be able to pay those guys back.”
The race was held earlier than in previous years but with over two hours worth of red flag delay due to pot holes forming in Turn One, the race drew on well into the night, taking over six hours to complete.
Under the lights of Daytona International Speedway, the crowd of 175,000 witnessed a stirring last lap from Earnhardt Jr, who was 10th with one lap remaining, climbing to second only to fall just short of pipping McMurray.
“I am just disappointed to come that close and not win it but,” said Earnhardt.
“The car worked really good. I'm happy for Jamie and his crew chief ‘Bono' (ED: Kevin Manion), who helped me when I was younger.”
Finishing third was Greg Biffle, who ran up front most of the day. He was followed by Clint Bowyer in a Richard Childress Chevrolet. David Reutimann was fifth, Martin Truex Jr. sixth, Kevin Harvick seventh, Matt Kenseth eighth, Carl Edwards ninth and Juan Pablo Montoya 10th.
The race produced a ton of leaders, including Mark Martin, Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, who wrecked at the end, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler, who was also eliminated from contention by an accident, Truex, AJ Allmendinger, also involved in an accident, Biffle, and Scott Speed, David Ragan, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano.
The 21 different leaders was a Daytona 500 record, and McMurray established a record he could care less about. He led the fewest numbers of laps – two – of any Daytona 500 winner. He wouldn't care if he had only led one lap, the last one.
Four-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson had a troublesome day, finishing 35th, while Aussie ace Marcos Ambrose ran well early in the front pack and was as high as 12th before his Toyota engine began leaking oil, putting him out of the race on lap 79 to be classified in 41st.