DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The most welcomed words of the week came three hours after Kevin Harvick beat Mark Martin in a photo finish in the Daytona 500. That's when NASCAR said all 43 cars passed post-race inspection.
For the first time in a week, NASCAR inspectors didn't steal the show at the Daytona International Speedway. The focus was on racing, and in particular, one of the most-memorable finishes in Daytona 500 history.
Harvick shot from seventh to a three-foot win over Mark Martin on the final lap Sunday. As the two crossed the line, 10 other cars were crashing 200 yards short of the finish line. Clint Bowyer's car crossed the line on its roof. And if the finish needed any more drama, Bowyer's car was on fire as it took the checkered flag.
Stock car racing was rocked by a cheating scandal all week. Six teams were caught breaking rules, leading to the suspension of five crew chiefs and one team executive. A total of $300,000 in fines were handed out - all leading up to the first official lap of the season.
Harvick steered clear of NASCAR's watchful eye, and once the Daytona 500 started, he steered clear of the lead until it mattered most - the final 50 feet. Harvick led for three laps midway in the race, then dropped back with overheating problems. He got that worked out and mounted one final charge during the final mile of the race.
In the process, Harvick said he hopes he helped shift the focus away from cheating.
"Well, I mean, you know, I'm glad we weren't a part of any of it," he said after winning $1.5 million. "It's hard to start off Speed Weeks with everything going the wrong direction with points and people having to take a vacation. It's hard to continue forward like that. So we're excited that everything has gone really good for us."
The final 100 miles were uniquely strange, even at Daytona 500 standards. Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch combined to lead 132 of the first 154 laps, but they crashed while fighting for the lead and that accident seemed to set the stage for a wild finish. After that there were four multi-car crashes during the stretch drive involving a total of 23 cars.
"I told them on the radio I don't know what's happening out here but I'm putting myself as close as I can to the wall so I'll hit something as least hard as possible," Harvick said.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.