When Harvick and Martin crossed the finish line side by side at the end of Sunday's Daytona 500, NASCAR officials were finally able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Finally, they had something good to boast about.
And it was exactly what NASCAR needed after a tumultuous Speedweeks.
For a week leading up to its biggest race, one word dominated the headlines coming out of Daytona: Cheating.
Hear from Harvick
Until Harvick's dramatic charge and pass for the win, that's what the 49th edition of the "Great American Race" was going to be remembered for — teams attempting to cheat in the season's biggest race and NASCAR coming down hard on them.
Two days after qualifying was held for the Daytona 500, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France delivered his annual state of the sport address, declaring that the sport has never been better. He talked about such big developments as the Nextel Cup debut of Toyota, the arrival Juan Pablo Montoya and the return of ESPN. But he emphasized the need to take those stories to the nation's major markets, where he believes the sport is "under-covered."
Over the next few days, whether intentional or not, NASCAR certainly accomplished that goal, earning more national headlines than the bizarre death of celebrity Anna Nicole Smith.
For a few days, NASCAR captured the attention of the whole nation, but for all the wrong reasons.
Everywhere you turned, major media outlets were covering NASCAR's "cheating scandal." The mysterious "foreign substance" found in Michael Waltrip's fuel tank was suddenly more interesting than NASA's diaper-wearing, weapons-toting astronaut.
Waltrip's emotional apology after his team was hit with major penalties was the top story on several national Web sites and TV news shows. An appearance on "Oprah" seemed likely to follow.
After winning his qualifying race, Jeff Gordon even admitted that he had reluctantly spent the past few nights following the nation's two biggest stories - the death of Anna Nicole and cheating in NASCAR. Ironically, moments later, Gordon became part of the story when his own car failed postrace inspection and he was sent to the rear of the field for the Daytona 500.
Suddenly, NASCAR looked like the making of a new reality TV show.
NASCAR should be commended for discovering the violations, conducting a thorough investigation and coming down hard on the offenders. But the very fact that there appears to be such widespread cheating does not bode well for a sport fighting desperately for national attention.
Baseball and football have their steroid scandals, the NBA has its frequent player brawls, and now NASCAR has a garage full of teams intentionally cheating because they believe they can get away with it.
No matter how NASCAR insiders spin the story, the sport still came away with a black eye. Either cheating is part of the game and has been for years — "this is nothing new," most said — or it's suddenly so rampant that NASCAR has to eject and suspend competitors and strip teams of points before they even race.
Though the story sparked interest right before the season's biggest race — which might have been the ultimate intent all along — it doesn't look good when NASCAR is competing with other major sports for tickets sales and TV ratings.
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At a time when NASCAR had all sorts of storylines to promote the race — Toyota, Montoya, the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Teresa Earnhardt saga — it is sad that it took a cheating epidemic to rev up interest.
Surely, that's not the type of national publicity France had in mind.
But, in the end, Harvick and Martin may have saved NASCAR from itself.
With contender after contender — Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson — falling by the wayside, the Daytona 500 suddenly sped toward a dramatic conclusion and a fairy-tale ending.
A victory by Martin in his 22nd try, after he has supposedly retired from full-time competition, and after leaving his longtime teammates at Roush Racing, would have been the feel-good story of the year.
Nothing could have been greater.
Except maybe a dramatic, last-lap charge to the front capped by a photo finish. Courtesy of a popular driver and colorful personality like Harvick. And in typical NASCAR fashion, there were more than a few fireworks at the end, with a multicar crash sending Clint Bowyer sliding across the finish line on his roof as flames erupted from his car.
It was the type of action-packed thriller fans have come to expect from NASCAR and the Daytona 500.
And that should be enough. NASCAR shouldn't need a shameful, sensational cheating scandal to capture attention and make headlines.
Performances like those by Harvick and Martin, and finishes like this year's Daytona 500, should be enough.