DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It took NASCAR three days to decide the winner of the first Daytona 500. It took NASCAR five seconds to decide the winner of the 49th. History may see little difference in the controversies.
If yesterday's wild running of NASCAR's showcase race could be summarized in a single sentence, winner Kevin Harvick said it all in a trembling breath: "This is what makes stock car racing what it is."
Good and bad.
Glorious and notorious.
Wild, close, fraught with wrecking - finished off with judgment calls by officials that leave controversies open-ended, never to be fully answered.
For the final five seconds, the outcome hung in the balance, not just with Harvick and long-suffering sentimental favorite Mark Martin racing side by side to the checkered flag.
The outcome also hung in the officials' tower, with a split-second decision at hand: when to throw the caution flag with cars wrecking every which way just behind Harvick and Martin.
By current NASCAR rules, a caution instantaneously freezes the field.
At the moment the wreck broke out, and for a moment or two afterward, Martin was ahead. But no caution came out. The field wasn't frozen, so the most respected driver of all, by his peers, remains 0-for-22 in Daytona 500 starts.
As the two Chevrolets crossed the finish line with Harvick's ahead by a hood, the safety lights finally turned yellow. Freezing the field didn't matter then. The race was over.
"They waited! They waited! I can't believe they waited!" Martin yelled to his crew via radio. "I really thought that thing was ours, guys. It still might be."
But after some minutes to consider, Martin knew there was no use arguing. NASCAR decisions, monumental and/or questionable as they might be, stand.
And so he resigned himself.
"Nobody wants to hear a grown man cry," said the 48-year-old who almost retired after last season, but decided to take a part-time ride with Ginn Racing this season. "This is what it is. And that's it. That's the end. Their decision. They made that decision, and that's what we're going to live with."
Harvick, even as he took the checkered flag, "knew I was going to be the bad guy," he said.
All that was clear about yesterday's race was that Harvick, who was in seventh place on the final restart, had made it to the line ahead. Even beyond the timing of the last caution, much else about the race was open to argument.
It was the closest 500 finish, a margin of .02 of a second, since the advent of electronic scoring to NASCAR in 1993. But history cannot know whether it was the closest 500 ever, because there was no definitive photo of Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp crossing the line in '59. That's why it took three days for NASCAR to view various photos from different angles and declare Petty the winner.
Was this the wildest? Probably.
"I've seen a lot of these Daytona 500s, and this has to be the wildest Daytona 500 I've ever watched," said Harvick's team owner, Richard Childress.
What had been a yawner for the first 150 laps exploded into nonstop wild driving and major wrecking for the final 50.
The bedlam was detonated with 48 laps left. Pre-race favorite Tony Stewart, in his clearly dominant Chevy, had worked his way back to second place after being sent back to 40th as a penalty for speeding off the pit road.
Stewart was challenging Kurt Busch for the lead when Busch nicked Stewart's left rear bumper, sending them both crashing out of the race.
Then all the fury of restrictor-plate racing broke out - not just the Big One, as drivers call the nearly inevitable multi-car pileup, but the Big Four: five cars on Lap 174 ... five on 189 ... three on 197 ... seven on Lap 202.
Yes, 202. The race had been thrown into "green-white-checkered" overtime by the wreck on 197, and even then the wrecking didn't stop.
After the checkered, Clint Bowyer's car tumbled upside down and afire across the finish line.
A moment earlier, with Harvick and Martin across the line, Bowyer's car had gone sideways, and that, NASCAR said, was when officials decided to throw the caution.
"When the 07 [Bowyer] went sideways on the track, the yellow came out," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said, apparently reading a statement from officials. "At that time the 29 [Harvick] was ahead of the 01 [Martin] and declared the winner."
Trouble was, there'd been lots of wrecking in the moments before Bowyer went sideways. NASCAR's response, Poston said, was that "the vehicles that were in the earlier part of the incident were already off the track and on the apron."
But it didn't appear that NASCAR officials could have anticipated the wrecking wouldn't continue, or that cars might not spin back onto the track.
"I was still ahead when they were wrecking behind," Martin said a few minutes before he resigned himself to the decision. "And if they'd just thrown the yellow, [the win] was in our fingers. But they waited, and waited, and waited."
Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.