He never led a lap. Not for the first 100 miles. Not for the first 300 miles. Not even the first 500 miles.
For more than six hours, Jamie McMurray was little more than an afterthought in the season-opening Daytona 500. He was upstaged by the 20 other drivers who took turns leading the race. He was upstaged by new rules. He was even upstaged by a race-halting pothole.
But when a string of yellow flags led to multiple restarts in NASCAR's new overtime system, McMurray grabbed the lead for the first time after 515 miles and held off a thrilling charge by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap to win Sunday's Daytona 500. Or, if you prefer, the Daytona 520.
When it was all over, McMurray did a brief
burnout before getting out of his car and falling to his knees on the Daytona 500 logo painted on the infield grass.
And then the driver, who was dropped by Roush Fenway Racing at the end of last year, celebrated the biggest victory of his career by crying when the television cameras finally reached him for a postrace interview.
"My dad cries a lot," McMurray said later. "When I was sitting in the car I was like, 'Whew, I don't want to look at him before I do my TV interview because I know I'm going to break down.' And, just so you guys know, my dad left before the race was over.
"But, you know, my dad and my wife … you know you do something that you love, you want to share that with the people you love. …"
And McMurray, 33, began sobbing again.
Considering the way his career has evolved the past few months, his emotions were understandable.
Once a young hotshot hired by Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates to replace Sterling Marlin in 2002, McMurray's career went off track when he switched to Roush in 2006. With Roush forced to reduce his number of teams by NASCAR last season, McMurray briefly found himself out of a job.
Coming off a 22nd place finish in the Sprint Cup standings in 2009, McMurray had to convince a sponsor and his old ownership team to give him a second chance with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing — which was formed from a merger of Ganassi's team and Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team started by Dale Earnhardt Sr.
"To be in the position that I was four or five months ago, to have Chip and Felix and (primary sponsor) Bass Pro Shops welcome me into their organization, it means a lot," McMurray said. "It's a great way for me to be able to pay those guys back."
It never would have happened if NASCAR hadn't tweaked its green-white-checkered rules this month. Previously, a race under caution could be restarted one time (one green-flag lap, one final white-flag lap, and a checkered-flag winner) but NASCAR is now permitting up to three green-white-checkered finishes in the event of multiple cautions.
The new rule went into effect Sunday with green-flag restarts after the 198th, 202nd and 206th laps. Had NASCAR been operating under the old system, Greg Biffle would have been declared the winner after the first green-white-checkered start. McMurray led only two of 208 laps, the fewest ever by a Daytona 500 winner.
"I was thinking, 'Why do I have to be the first candidate after the rule change to be the guy who didn't get the win?' " Biffle said. "But … that's just the way it is."
The race, which was slowed by two red flags for repair on a pothole, was highlighted by a record 21 different leaders who exchanged the lead 52 times.
Earnhardt was as far back as 22nd on the first restart but charged wildly through the field in the final laps before running out of time. He finished 0.119 seconds behind, followed by Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Zephyrhills' David Reutimann.
"It was all a blur. I was just going wherever they weren't," Earnhardt said. "I really don't enjoy being that aggressive, but if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best."
McMurray knew exactly who was behind him as he approached the checkered flag.
"When I saw the (No.) 88 behind me, I thought, 'Oh no,' " McMurray said. "He had a good car and I just thought — Earnhardt and Daytona, they win all the time it just seems like. You never know what to expect."
Information from Times wires was used in this report.