DAYTONA BEACH — The pavement at Daytona International Speedway is due to be replaced this summer. After the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night — and this morning — the walls might need some repair work too.
After waiting out the Daytona 500 in February because of pothole problems, the Independence Day race turned into another marathon after a long rain delay and a string of multi-car accidents in the final laps.
And at 12:48 this morning, more than five hours after the scheduled start, the race ended the same way as it began:
With Kevin Harvick leading the pack.
Harvick, the Sprint Cup points leader and winner of the 2007 Daytona 500 here, retook the lead with one lap remaining and held off Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag for his second victory of the season.
By the time the race ended only 17 of the 43 cars were on the lead lap. Eighteen were in the garage, and eight others were in various stages of fitness.
"Every time I looked up there was a crash going on in the last 30 laps or so," Kahne said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the Nationwide series race on Friday night driving a car with his father's old number and color scheme, managed to place fourth in the Coke Zero 400. The finish put him in the top 12 in the standings, but Earnhardt was under no illusion about his effort. The car was not in contention the entire night, but stayed out of harm's way to outlast a lot of faster cars.
"We were lucky, real lucky to get what we did tonight," Earnhardt said.
Somehow, the entire weekend got mangled. On Friday night, qualifying was rained out. On Saturday night, the race was delayed more than 90 minutes by rain. And on Sunday morning, a red flag wreck took 20 minutes and more than a dozen cars.
The race was about 30 miles from the finish when Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton banged into each other, and it set off a chain reaction of crashes that eventually claimed 19 cars. Included were eight of the top 13.
Among those who landed in the garage after the wreck were Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman.
The race was re-started with eight laps remaining and was seconds from the white flag when another crash with Sam Hornish and Elliott Sadler led to a ninth caution flag and a green-white-checkered finish.
For the first 100 of 160 scheduled laps, the race was virtually without incident. Or drama. Or intrigue. Just a handful of drivers trading the lead, and complaining about loose cars.
When the highlight of the first two hours is a petulant A.J. Allmendinger behaving poorly in a conversation with Richard Petty after his car ended up in the garage, you figure this race won't ever make it to ESPN Classic.
It finally took two of NASCAR's most aggressive drivers to begin waking people up. Kyle Busch, who had one of the most dominant cars, went headfirst into the wall when his car got loose while passing Juan Pablo Montoya.
"The replay shows I turned right across the nose of (Montoya), so apparently I wanted to wreck myself," Busch said. "Some people don't understand what happens in these cars. With the old tires, I've got no grip. I'm barely hanging on sliding around as it is. When his air was on my quarter-panel like that, it just started turning my car down the straightaway and I was going across the front of his nose.
"It was all air, without him hitting me. I'm sure, somehow, it's my fault."
And here's how one blunder can lead to another:
Montoya's incident with Busch led to debris on the track, which caused some damage to Martin Truex's car, which forced him into a pit stop, which put him in position to get inadvertently caught up in a wreck when David Ragan went into a wall.
So Truex was nowhere near Montoya and Busch, yet ended up out of the race 14 laps later because of their contact.
"It's just the way things have been going for us lately," Truex said.
Allmendinger pulled away from Petty, the seven-time NASCAR champion, turned his back on his boss and then stormed away from "The King." Allmendinger declined to talk to reporters.