DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sterling Marlin should have stayed in the car and left the repairs to his crew.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner blew a chance Sunday to make it three, handing Ward Burton the biggest victory of his life.
Following a late red flag, Burton won a three-lap dash to the finish line for his fourth career win in 251 starts.
''A lot of what happens here is atmosphere and luck,'' a jubilant Burton said. ''We had some luck today.''
Marlin, who received hate mail and death threats from people who blamed him for the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt at last year's Daytona 500, appeared to have the win wrapped up.
With six laps to go, Marlin had spun out leader Jeff Gordon as a pack of cars crashed behind them, then beat Burton back to the yellow flag by less than half a car-length, to grab the top spot.
NASCAR stopped the bizarre, crash-marred event to give the remaining leaders a chance to race for the win. With the cars halted on the backstretch, Marlin unbuckled his seat belts and climbed out of the silver No. 40 Dodge to check out the damage to his right front fender.
He started to pull the bent sheet metal away from the tire, but an official warned him to get back in his car. That little attempt to fix the damage was enough for NASCAR to penalize him for what it called an illegal pit stop, sending his car to the rear of the lead pack after the restart.
''I tried to get it pulled off, but NASCAR didn't like it, and they sent me to the rear,'' said Marlin, who wound up eighth.
Burton called the last three laps ''nerve-racking.''
''I didn't even look at the flag,'' he said. ''I wasn't going to stop. When the other guys backed off, I backed off.''
As Marlin drove slowly into the pits while the new leader took the green flag on lap 196 of 200, all the contenders behind Burton began to race two-by-two and even three-wide, letting the leader pull away. He crossed the finish line 0.193 seconds -- about three car-lengths -- ahead of Elliott Sadler's Ford.
''You got to be there at the end,'' Burton said, his voice shaking with emotion. ''We were trying to be real careful. I didn't know if we were going to win it, but I knew we were going to have a hell of chance at it. We're ready to rock all year.''
Former Daytona winner Geoff Bodine, making a comeback at 52, was a surprising third, followed by Kurt Busch, 2000 race winner Michael Waltrip, Mark Martin and rookie Ryan Newman.
The 44th Daytona 500 began with some question marks, with NASCAR giving both Ford and Dodge a quarter-inch reduction of their rear spoilers on Friday with little practice time to see how they would work in the draft.
Chevrolet and Pontiac were considered the big favorites, but the race turned into a 200-lap brawl, with lots of side-by-side action and two big crashes, one of them involving 18 cars and the other a six-car accident.
Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion who has won the Daytona 500 twice, helped ignite the big one when Kevin Harvick, last year's top rookie, tried to block him on lap 149 as the two battled for second place.
Gordon tagged Harvick's rear bumper and sent him spinning up the banking into the wall. Harvick's car then slid back down the track right in front of a pack of cars racing at close to 190 mph.
Kenny Wallace's car erupted in flames in the middle of the melee, but nobody was injured in the first big test of a NASCAR safety initiative that was accelerated after Earnhardt's death in a last-lap crash here last February.
''I took a pretty hard hit right in the door and all the new safety stuff did its job,'' said Ricky Rudd, who was in the middle of the first crash.
Several drivers blamed the crashing and the banging on new aerodynamic rules, intended to slow the cars down and make it harder to pass. They said they were forced to block continuously or lose positions in bunches.
''There's no give, just take, take, take,'' said Todd Bodine, who was caught up in the 18-car crash. ''When you have something like that all day, something like this is bound to happen.''
Rudd said the pace was too slow.
''It feels like you're running 60 miles an hour out there, so everybody feels like a hero and takes a lot of chances,'' he said.
Seventeen cars were still left on the lead lap after that crash and the hard racing continued.
It appeared Gordon had everybody right where he wanted them when, with Marlin pushing his Chevy from behind, he passed Busch for the lead on lap 177. Marlin followed into second.
It stayed that way until after another flag for a crash by Robby Gordon on lap 191. On the restart on lap 195, with cars crashing well behind them on the main straightaway, Marlin tried to pass Jeff Gordon on the low side.
Gordon slid over to block and the two came together, with Gordon sliding sideways and skidding into the infield grass, ending his shot at another Daytona win. He wound up ninth.
''I probably should have given it up once he got beside me,'' Gordon said. ''That was my own fault. ... He had a run on me and I blocked him and got myself turned.
''It was a wild and crazy race. I went from the back to the front and the front to the back,'' Gordon said.
Marlin was smiling despite the unhappy ending.
''Jeff did what he should have done. He should block. I had a run on him and got up on his quarterpanel. I knew it was going to be close. I thought he would pull back and let me go by,'' Marlin said.
''It's the Daytona 500. You've got to do everything you can to win.''
Burton, who led only the last four laps, averaged 142.971 mph to give Dodge its first Daytona 500 victory since 1974. He won with the same car in which he led a race-high 53 laps in 2001 before crashing late in the race. His best previous finishes in seven Daytona 500s were a pair of eighths.
Although NASCAR's new aerodynamic rules were intended to put a premium on passing, there were 20 lead changes among 12 drivers and plenty of excitement for the 190,000 spectators at Daytona International Speedway and the big national television audience.
Two of the top contenders were eliminated from contention early, with the engine in Tony Stewart's Pontiac blowing on the third lap, and two flat tires and an accident relegating Dale Earnhardt Jr. to 29th.
Two of the most-watched drivers in the race also had problems. Shawna Robinson, the second woman ever to race here and the first since 1980, finished 24th in only her second Winston Cup start, and 60-year-old Dave Marcis ended his long career with a 42nd-place finish in his record 33rd Daytona 500 start.
''At one point, we ran out of fuel. That didn't help us any,'' said Robinson. ''It was kind of survival. I think my head is still spinning a little.
''We accomplished something, but I want to be competitive,'' she said.
Marcis, the oldest driver ever in this race, went out with an overheated engine.
''We didn't want it to end like this,'' he said.
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