- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Jamie McMurray sank to his knees thankfully and exhaustedly in the infield grass and then fell on all fours, he could have been any driver who finished Sunday's Daytona 500.
They were all drained by a six-hour marathon with two long red flags to repair a hole in the track, two green-white-checkered overtimes and a record number of leaders.
What distinguished McMurray as the winner of the wildest NASCAR season opener in recent memory was his uncontrollable weeping afterward -- first in Victory Lane, then again, even more, fully an hour later at the winner's interview.
Amidst his sobs he recalled "where I was last year," squeezed out by Roush Fenway Racing to cut its teams to the new NASCAR limit of four cars. Then he choked out gratitude for owners "Chip [Ganassi] and Felix [Sabates] to take a chance on me and let me come back, it means a lot to me."
Again in the media center, McMurray simply broke down, buried his face in his hands and was unable to speak for a good minute, while Ganassi spoke of the no-brainer decision to hire him as "the best available driver" in the silly season shuffle last fall.
McMurray was the 21st and last of the race-record parade of different leaders, leading only the final two laps in the second overtime. Never had a Daytona 500 winner led this few laps.
All in all, it's a good thing a hole in the track made two huge holes in the race -- two red-flag periods totaling 2 hours, 25 minutes to repair a gouge in the asphalt just off Turn 2 of Daytona International Speedway.
Without the two long intermissions, the race might have just gone out of control. It nearly was anyway.
First, repair crews tried to patch with standard asphalt, which took an hour and 45 minutes but soon wore out when green-flag racing restarted. Then they used a type of epoxy, which looked like a big white bandage in the low groove.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who shot from 22nd to second during the two green-white-checkered overtimes, reckoned in the aftermath that the long journey for a total of 520 miles, into night-time racing, might have given McMurray the edge at the end.
"He had an awesome, unbelievable car in the Shootout [a night sprint here on Feb. 6]," Earnhardt recalled. "And this was exactly the same conditions as for the Shootout, and his car was there for him at the end when he needed it."
The other huge boost came from Greg Biffle, who "gave me this unbelievable push on the backstretch," McMurray said of the move that got him out front for the first time, on the first lap after the final restart.
Biffle's push, in turn, was possible due to NASCAR's lifting of the ban on bump-drafting, anywhere on the track. Biffle had a better view than McMurray and explained that the push started long before the backstretch clincher.
"I pushed Jamie and spun his tires on the final restart," said Biffle, who wound up third. "I was able to push him easy until we got straight, and then I continued to push him all the way into Turn 1.
"Then for the first time during SpeedWeeks, I pushed a guy in the corner [previously forbidden], tying to keep him straight, trying to push him around the corner, and then got locked on him down the backstretch and just shoved us both by a huge amount. So I feel good about helping Jamie get clear and get up front."
But this was by no means an act of pure altruism on Biffle's part.
"I was trying to get us both out front so that I'd have a shot at making a move on him on the last lap," Biffle said. "That's the best spot to win from, is follow-the-leader. And I was glad to get out of that gaggle of cars. Going three-wide and people slamming each other, then we're in big trouble. But if we can get singled out we can push out there, and that's where you get your best opportunity."
One more run by Biffle on the last lap fell short, and allowed Earnhardt to slip into second place, after starting 10th on the final restart.
That was McMurray's final fright on the last lap.
"I got a big run down the backstretch again," he said, "and then saw the 88 [Earnhardt], and to be honest, I was like, 'Crap!' I'm like, 'This guy has won a lot of races here and his family has an incredible history here.'"
"I didn't know where I was until I got done almost wrecking down the back straightaway," Earnhardt said. "Then I looked up, and was like, 'Who's this [No.] 1 car in front of me? Jamie's gonna win this damn race!' I was happy for him. He deserves it."
Earnhardt conceded that "it's frustrating to come that close, but, hell, we were running 22nd at the beginning of the first green-white-checkered."
Asked to recount his charge, Earnhardt said, "I don't really remember much about it. It was just a blur. I was just going where they weren't. I don't really enjoy being that aggressive, but if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held your gas down and prayed for the best."
Earnhardt did know that NASCAR's declaration that drivers could police themselves freed him to make his run.
"Everybody took care of everybody, but at the end, you gotta go, and people are doing some things they don't particularly want to do," Earnhardt said.
"And I never once felt like I had NASCAR looking over my shoulder while I was doing it."
Liberation had worked, right out of the box of the 2010 season. Earnhardt was free to stage the show that wowed the sellout crowd, and Biffle was free to push McMurray up as the 21st and last leader, giving McMurray his first Daytona 500 win.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those were tears of joy on Jamie McMurray's face after the Daytona 500, and why not? He won the biggest race of the year for a new team and in one of the most thrilling fashions in recent memory.