It was going to be a decent day after all, crew chief Todd Berrier thought to himself.
Actually, it was night. The 2007 Daytona 500 was well into its third hour and headed into overtime, adding two laps to its standard 200 so the 185,000 fans in attendance and a TV audience of 20 million could have a green-white-checkered finish. That was fine by Berrier, whose No. 29 Shell Chevy was knocking on the door of a surprisingly solid top-10 finish.
The Richard Childress Racing team had not had a Daytona Speedweeks to write home about. The No. 29 car in particular had been strangely slow for nine days, qualifying poorly and forced to start the race way back in 34th position. Not exactly the way you want to introduce the world to a new sponsor.
When the car started showing some signs of life in Saturday's final practice session, someone was kind enough to inform driver Kevin Harvick that no one had ever won the Great American Race from as far back as 34th. His starting spot was, in fact, one position worse than the all-time record, set by Bobby Allison in 1978.
"Well," the man they call Happy replied with more than a little attitude, "good for Bobby."
When the green flag dropped Feb. 18, Harvick made a first green-flag run that would have made Allison proud, jetting from 34th to 10th in the first 10 laps. By Lap 81, nearing the race's halfway point, he even slipped into the lead for three laps.
But the unpredictable nature of restrictor-plate racing soon began tossing the No. 29 around like a beach ball. He fell as far back as 18th and climbed as high as fifth. By the race's end, NASCAR's laser-guided loop scoring system would record that Harvick had passed 244 cars and that 232 cars had passed him back.
Thanks to the plate, that was pretty much the same story for every car in the field. Well, with at least one exception.
Mark Martin had been trying to retire for five years. He'd even gone as far as to leave Roush Racing, where he'd become a living NASCAR legend, winning 35 Cup races and more Busch Series events than any other person who ever walked the face of the planet. Now he was behind the wheel of the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet, a car owned by a team that had long been the lovable loser of stock car racing. Until the previous summer, it had been known as MB2 Motorsports, but now it was Ginn Racing, rejuvenated by new owner and golf resort guru Bobby Ginn.
It was Ginn who had convinced 48-year-old Martin to jump in his ride, enticing him with an a la carte part-time schedule, a chance to work with a pack of young and hungry drivers and, oh yeah, a ton of cash.
Few drivers have enjoyed the kind of respect and admiration of his peers Martin has. And not just his peers; he's one of the select handful of racers who has long been greeted with practically zero boos during the prerace popularity contest that is driver introductions. Since Dale Earnhardt's death and Rusty Wallace's retirement, Martin had become the go-to guy for career and driving advice for every young racer in the garage -- including Harvick. Yet despite all the accolades, all the race wins, all the IROC titles, Martin had resigned himself to his title of "best driver never to win a Cup championship."
Like Harvick, Martin had started in the back of the pack for this, his 23rd Daytona 500. Like Harvick, Martin had worked his way up to the front. But unlike Harvick, his climb had been steady and slow. He'd started the race 26th and had fallen to 29th by Lap 10. By Lap 30, he was up to 21st. By Lap 100, he was running 14th. Fifty laps later, he was in the top 10, and with 20 to go, he was in the lead.
"You could feel the crowd realizing what was happening," crew chief Ryan Pemberton admitted after the race. "When he went into the lead, there was a cheer. Then, he just stuck up there. Every real race fan knew that he'd never won a championship and that he'd never won the Daytona 500. And as far as anyone knew, this might be his last shot."
As the laps counted down, Martin was acutely aware of one of those youngsters of whom he'd always been such a fan. Kyle Busch had been at or near the front all day. When Martin was the sage-in-residence at Roush Racing, he'd been amazed at Kyle's raw ability as a teenager in the Roush talent pipeline. But he wasn't going to let this 21-year-old deny him the Daytona 500. He'll have plenty more chances, Martin said to himself, agreeing with the crowd that, yes, this might be his last real shot.
Martin had grabbed the lead with 25 laps to go and hadn't relinquished it. Each lap closer to the checkered flag meant the chances of "the big one" were increasing, and he wanted to make sure he was well out in front of it.
But while all eyes were fixed on Martin and Busch, Harvick was on the move again. With 20 to go, he was mired all the way back in 29th. With 10 to go, he was 15th. He had just inched his way up to seventh for what should have been three laps to go.
"And that's when all heck broke loose," Martin recalled with his patented tight-lipped smile.
A five-car pileup was uncorked off Turn 2 when Roush teammates Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth had a run-in, collecting Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ricky Rudd, Martin Truex Jr. and David Stremme. The red flag was shown, and the cars were parked. There would be a green-white-checkered finish, adding two laps to the Daytona 500 -- now the Daytona 505.
When the yellow was shown and the cars lined up behind the pace car for the final restart, Berrier began going through the routine checklist with Harvick. Where are your teammates? Check your gauges. Be sure to rub any debris off those tires. You're running seventh, so be smart and bring the car back in one piece. Yep, Berrier thought, it was going to be a decent day after all.
That's when Harvick chimed in over the radio.
"By the way, we can still win this thing."
When the green flag was shown with two laps to go, the view up ahead from inside Harvick's cockpit looked like a parking lot of bumpers and rear windshields. So much so that he couldn't even see Martin and Busch up ahead.
"Then," Harvick would recall later, "It was like the Red Sea parted. All I could think was 'Go!'"
On the final lap, the leaders took the low line, as good leaders should. Harvick whipped his Chevy to the outside just in time to catch a train of a push behind him. As the two lines hammered their way into Turn 3, Harvick's red and yellow hood looked as if it was moving 50 mph faster than anyone else's. By the middle of Turn 4, he was pulling up to Martin's passenger-side window, the checkered flag being unfurled up ahead.
"Then," Martin said, knowing he was repeating himself, "all heck broke loose again."
Busch, in a desperate attempt to make it a three-wide finish, hit the apron and careered into Kenseth. Cars went flying, spinning; Harvick's teammate Clint Bowyer went upside-down on fire.
"I kept waiting on my spotter to say, 'Caution's out!'" Martin said. "But I never lifted. And neither did Kevin."
The two cars flashed across the line so fast that the radio and TV play-by-play teams were shocked into a brief silence. The old-timers would later say it spooked them how much the scene had reminded them of the inaugural Daytona 500 finish of 1959, when it took three days to find a photo proving Lee Petty had inched past Johnny Beauchamp. This time, the lasers and computers did the work instantly.
Kevin Harvick, 2007 Daytona 500 champion by two one-hundredths of a second.
Yep, Berrier thought as he stood in Victory Lane soaked in Gatorade and covered in confetti, it was going to be a decent day after all.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.