Pothole didn't spoil NASCAR's party

2/15/2010 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Block out those two hours and 20 minutes of Trackgate and the Daytona 500 was almost perfect.

A record 21 leaders. A double-overtime finish, the first time in NASCAR history.

And an uncanny sprint to the front by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the last two laps, falling one spot short of catching winner Jamie McMurray, who cried tears of joy in Victory Lane.

A dream of a day. And a nightmare couple of hours when NASCAR's world caved in.

A spectacular Daytona 500 became the Pothole 220, a construction zone of ineptitude and disappointment in between some stunning racing.

The racing side is what NASCAR had in mind with its back to basics theme. The track coming apart was not.

The sport's Super Bowl event was temporarily relegated to a sideshow of desperate track surgeons trying to save their VIP patient. With 80 laps to go, Turn 2 developed a chunked-up mess of a hole.

Uh oh. Bad timing for a fluke track flaw. Talk about a buzz-kill. Two red flags and 144 minutes of down time.

Before the repair debacle, this race was the real deal -- Daytona the way it was meant to be.

But someone placed a little curse over NASCAR to try to ruin the party. NASCAR officials deserved better. People in the sold-out grandstands deserved better.

They saw the best Daytona 500 in years if they were patient enough to stick around for more than six hours.

And it ended like no NASCAR race ever before. A new rule allowed the drivers to race in a second overtime, two extra laps after a caution was displayed in the first two-lap OT.

In the past, it was one and done. If the yellow flew during the overtime, the race was over. This time, they kept racing. The drivers would have up to three tries.

It meant Earnhardt finished as the runner-up instead of 10th. It meant a much-needed victory for McMurray, his first race back with team owner Chip Ganassi.

The race ended a successful two weeks at Daytona to start NASCAR's new edict of opening things up on the track.

No one wanted a literal interpretation, but they got it.

It was an unimaginable problem, with no one to blame, although some will blame track officials for not repaving the 2.5-mile oval in more than 30 years.

"It's not NASCAR's fault and not the track's fault," Earnhardt said. "It's just a result of these cars hitting the pavement. But maybe they should have repaved it a couple of years ago."

Maybe NASCAR should have made some of these rule changes a couple of years ago. They entered the 2010 season giving fans what they wanted.

The good old days were back -- some great racing with the help of looser rules enforcement, tons of media hype and added national attention from Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut, and the Daytona 500 the way people remember it.

Part of NASCAR's new philosophy is allowing the drivers to police themselves and do their thing on the track.

"This validates all the changes NASCAR made to get better," Earnhardt said. "They made a lot of good choices on what to do to put things back in the drivers' hands. I never once felt NASCAR was looking over my shoulder today."

But racing around or through a missing chunk of pavement was not an option.

And they couldn't fix it easily. The delay went on and on, 1 hour, 40 minutes for the first red flag. Who did they have making these repairs? Moe, Larry and Curly in firesuits?

"We take full responsibility for the problem," said Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway. "I apologize for it. This is hallowed ground. But we can come back from this and now we know how to fix it."

Braig said the unusually cold temperatures Sunday were the reason the repairs didn't work at first. In the boredom of the moment, jokes were flying across Twitter. How about this one:

"Odds on what will happen first: The end of the Daytona 500 or Carl Edwards' wife giving birth."

That one was mine. Kate Edwards is due to deliver their first child on Wednesday.

Oh, there were others. "NASCAR should have called The Who, one week removed from their Super Bowl halftime performance at Miami." "Jimmy Hoffa wasn't buried in Turn 2."

On and on.

NASCAR officials are going to earlier start times this season. They needed it Sunday. A race with a 1:20 p.m. ET start time ended under the lights.

Brian France came on the telecast during the first delay and looked at the bright side.

"We're getting it solved," France said. "The good news is we are in the midst of our best Daytona 500 in a long, long time."

The race restarted with 75 laps to go, but the pavement opened again and a second red flag flew with 39 laps left.

"Man, this is a bad predicament to be in," driver Kyle Busch said on TV during the second red flag. "It's unfortunate for the fans. It's been a great race all day, but it's back to the same old hole again."

Track officials used a Bondo putty compound to cover the hole on the second red flag.

"From NASCAR's point of view, I want to thank the track [officials] for everything they did to the track to make it raceable,'' said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston. "… At the end of the day, we had some great racing out there."

Jimmie Johnson didn't see it that way. The hole likely caused him to cut a tire and damage his car. He finished 35th.

Trackgate had winners and losers. NASCAR is a winner for making changes that worked with wonderful competition on the track.

But having its premier event include an embarrassing track failure left some ugly memories.

Oh well. Maybe all's well that ends well.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.