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Harvick pulls an #8220Earnhardt#8221; over fan-favorite Martin

If I hadn't been there to witness it in person, I wouldn't have believed.

In a move reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt's 2000 victory at Talladega, the last of his career, Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 Sunday by coming from 29th position with 20 laps to go to take the win by 2/100 of a second.

Now that's close.

Sunday's finish was so close that it is the closest finish recorded by electronics at Daytona.

Perhaps only the 1959 finish, in which Johnny Beauchamp defeated Lee Petty only to have Petty declared the winner three days later after video evidence showed his car was ahead, was closer.

In a race marred by cheating allegations and suspensions, Harvick took what had been a ho-hum race and turned it into one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history.

But much of that thanks also goes to Mark Martin.

In his first race after retiring from racing a full-time schedule, Martin came as close as he ever has to winning the 500 and he did it driving a non-Jack Rousch car.

During a time when then U.S. Army has been fighting for our country, Martin took his No. 01 U.S. Army Chevy and fought as hard as he could to hold off the cars behind him, but it wasn't enough.

Martin was clearly the sentimental favorite during Sunday's race, and it showed through the response of the fans, drivers and owners.

As the final laps counted down, it looked as if Martin would finally overcome one of the two obstacles that eluded him during his career, with the other being capturing a Cup championship, but it just wasn't meant to be.

As the cars stormed through turn 3, Harvick, benefiting from a ferocious Matt Kenseth push, took the outside lane and held off an advance from Kyle Busch and then took advantage of Martin getting loose to take the close win.

In just his sixth start in The Great American Race, Harvick paid the ultimate tribute to Dale Earnhardt, who lost his life exactly six years ago Sunday, by winning the race that mattered most to The Intimidator.

Sunday's race was a great start to the 2007 season for Harvick, but it was a miserable start for many of NASCAR top stars.

Tony Stewart, the odds on favorite to win the 500 after capturing the Budweiser Shootout and a victory in the first Gatorade Duel race, had yet another disappointing start to the season when 2003 Cup champion Kurt Busch got into the back of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevy on lap 152, sending both cars into the wall, thus ending both cars' chances of winning.

Busch, who has been known as whiner since arriving on the Cup scene, took full responsibility for the wreck and Stewart, who has been known as a loose cannon, took equal responsibility.

Both drivers should be proud of their behavior off the track.

Defending 500 and Cup champion Jimmie Johnson also had a tough day as the No. 48 Lowe's Chevy was never even a factor in the race.

On lap 174, Johnson lost control on the back straightaway, spun across the track and collected several cars in the wreck.

The good news for Johnson, however, is the Lowe's team was given back the car that won last year's race prior to Sunday's start since the winning car is kept in the Daytona USA museum for one year.

Four-time Cup champion and Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon experienced similar problems Sunday, although Gordon fought back to finish 12th.

Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. also fought to stay at the front Sunday and eventually was collected in wreck, thus ending his day.

Toyota's debut was much anticipated, but the hype outlived the results.

Dale Jarrett was the highest finisher of all the Toyota cars and Michael Waltrip racing, which runs Toyota cars, will still be dealing with the cheating scandal for weeks to come.

Rookie sensation Juan Pablo Montoya also made his crossover from F-1 to NASCAR at Daytona, but the Colombian native fell short of expectations.

After a strong showing during qualifying, Montoya looked like a real contender, but quickly learned the mechanical misfortunes of NASCAR during both his Gatorade Duel and Busch race.

Montoya's car was no threat on Sunday, but the driver made up for what the car was lacking and finished respectably in 19th.

As the teams pack up and make the cross-country trip to Fontana, Calif., for this week's race, many are glad the Daytona circus is over, but few hate to see it end.

I, for one, hate to see the close of what has been an exciting two weeks of racing.

But if the rest of the season is anything like the 500, we are in for one great year of NASCAR.

Austin Phillips is The Greenville Advocate sports editor.

You can contact him by e-mailing austin.phillips@greenvilleadvocate.com or by calling 382-3111 ext. 122.