DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - So focused was Mark Martin on hard-charging Kevin Harvick, he had no inkling of the chaos unfolding behind him.
With less than a mile to go in the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch's car was spinning. Clint Bowyer's was upside down and on fire. Five other cars bumped and banged, careening into one another in a smoke-filled mass of twisted metal.
With the checkered flag in sight, Martin simply came up short - a mere length of a car hood - in a wild, wreck-filled finish.
Harvick beat the sentimental favorite to win NASCAR's premier race yesterday, six years to the day after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap. Just days after his death, it was Harvick who was hired to replace him, and he rewarded Richard Childress with the car owner's second Daytona 500 victory - Earnhardt won the other in 1998.
"This had to be the wildest Daytona 500 I've ever watched," Childress said. "I kept my eyes shut there for a little while it was so wild."
It took several moments for NASCAR to declare the winner, finally giving it to Harvick and spoiling what would have been the biggest victory of the 48-year-old Martin's career.
"I really wanted to win that thing," Martin said. "They were going to have to pry it out of my fingers, man."
Harvick did just that, never letting off the gas as he charged from 29th to first in 22 laps.
"My go-kart experience over the winter paid off, because I didn't let off the floor and we just kept hitting things and the wall and bouncing off everything," Harvick said. "But man, this is the Daytona 500. Can you believe it?"
After a cheating scandal nearly ruined the Great American Race, it was just the finish NASCAR needed to put racing back in the spotlight.
Five teams were busted for breaking the rules during Speedweeks - including two-time winner Michael Waltrip, who broke the NASCAR code by tampering with his fuel before qualifying and humiliated Toyota in its Nextel Cup debut.
The scandal put the sport in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, and NASCAR ratcheted up its penalty process to prevent its biggest race from turning into a joke.
Finishes like this one might fix everything.
"Anytime there's a good race on the racetrack, it helps mend things," Harvick said. "But I think it's still going to take a little bit to get over some of the issues that happened."
For at least one night, the talk will be of the victory Martin had in his sight and the way Harvick yanked it from him.
Martin, making his 23rd attempt at a 500 win, could see the checkered flag when Harvick barreled along the outside of him. Just as Harvick pushed into the lead, Busch wiggled behind them and bumped into Matt Kenseth to start a melee.
Kenseth was spinning and Greg Biffle was too. Bowyer flipped onto his roof and through the grass, flames shooting through the windshield.
But Harvick and Martin continued to race side by side, waiting for NASCAR to call for a caution. When it finally came, Harvick and Martin were at the finish line, and Harvick was just barely ahead. The winning margin was .123 seconds, and NASCAR had to review the tape just to be sure who was going to Victory Lane.
Harvick never doubted the outcome.
"I got so excited at the end of the race, and I knew we had won," he said. "I just didn't realize how excited I was, and I punched the dang mirror out of the car. Just overexcited, I guess. Knocked the mirror right out."
Martin finished second, followed by Jeff Burton, Harvick's teammate, and Mike Wallace, who raced his way into the 500. Fifth place was rookie David Ragan, the kid who replaced Martin when he left Roush Racing this winter after 19 seasons.
Martin left the powerhouse Roush team because he wanted to ease his way into retirement, and he got the opportunity to do it with a partial schedule at Ginn Racing - a second-tier team bought last year by a Florida land developer trying to satisfy his love of NASCAR.
The decision was questioned by those who wondered if Bobby Ginn could make the ultracompetitive Martin cars capable of winning.
Boy, did he ever.
"I haven't even seen the finish. It is what it is," Martin said. "We were inches or feet or whatever. We were short. It was so close, but I was second. I let it slip away, slip through my fingers, and I'm fine with that. I am very proud of what this team did for me this weekend."
Martin led 26 laps and was out front when a five-car accident brought racing to a standstill with five laps to go. It made for an agonizing 11 minutes, 39 seconds for Martin, who sat idly in his car trying to plot his strategy during the stoppage.
When racing resumed with two laps to go, Martin seemingly needed only to hold off Busch in a sprint to the finish. He weaved high and then low to block Busch's attempts, which may have briefly distracted him from Harvick.
Before the frantic finish, the race was shaping up to be a fight between Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, who combined to lead 130 of the 200 laps. But they wrecked each other while leading the race with 48 laps to go.
Stewart was leading coming out of the fourth turn when his Chevrolet wiggled just a bit. Busch, closing fast, couldn't avoid running into Stewart's bumper, and both cars careened into the outside wall.
Busch, who led 95 laps in his bid to give car owner Roger Penske his first Daytona 500 win, was heartbroken.
"We both got taken out of the Daytona 500 on my mistake," he said from inside his car. "I made the first mistake. I apologize to [Stewart], but I know that doesn't mean anything now."
Stewart, who led early but dropped to the back of the field after a pit road miscue, led 35 laps and just had surged back to the front when he wrecked.
It dropped Stewart to 0-for-9 in Daytona 500s, a streak he was determined to snap when he reported to Speedweeks.29.20358 -81.03941