DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Conspiracy theorists, start your engines.
Actually, they've been ready since the celebration ended Saturday night at Daytona and Dale Earnhardt Jr. left with his victory in the Pepsi 400.
Earnhardt won the first race at the track since his father was killed Feb. 18 in a last-lap wreck in the Daytona 500.
Junior was pushed across the finish line by Michael Waltrip, the teammate who won the 500 with his help. In a late charge from seventh to first, Earnhardt's car seemed to defy the laws of physics on a track where carburetor restrictor plates limit horsepower and almost always keep drivers close.
In virtually every aspect, the storybook triumph seemed too good to be true. Many skeptics think maybe it really was.
No fewer than a half-dozen newspaper columnists wrote Monday about the ''wink-wink-nod-nod aspects of the result,'' in the words of the Tampa Tribune's Martin Fennelly. All day, the talk show hosts said it and the Internet users posted it.
A ridiculous notion? Of course it is, for any big-time sport.
But NASCAR has taken a very slow, increasingly awkward path into the spotlight. It hasn't quite gained the level of respect it yearns for, as all this second-guessing proves.
Once a sleepy Southern pastime filled with good ol' boys who couldn't tell a ratings point from a restrictor plate, it has become a riveting soap opera doubling as sport in the 4 1/2 months since The Intimidator's death.
Safety issues have cast a cloud. Fans and media -- all paying more attention than ever before -- have put NASCAR on the spot, wondering if it is leveling with the public and doing everything in its power to protect the drivers.
Crucial doubts on that front have left NASCAR open to questions about everything else, too -- including the sanctity of a result so dramatic it almost seems corny.
''You don't go by yourself on the outside and make that kind of time up,'' Johnny Benson said of Earnhardt's late-race push to the front. ''But it's OK. It was good that Junior won.''
It's not the first time NASCAR has been accused of fashioning a perfect ending.
Nobody can forget Richard Petty's final victory in 1984. The King of racing earned his 200th win on July 4th, with President Reagan in the crowd. Fairy tale stuff, indeed.
But there's really no need to turn the clock back so far to find examples of NASCAR's credibility gap.
NASCAR has brandished a reputation as being one of the very few governing bodies in sports that tinkers with the rules on a consistent basis, sometimes from month to month, or moment to moment.
Tony Stewart lost 20 places in the final standings of Saturday's race when he received the black flag for crossing the yellow line at the bottom of the track.
NASCAR has always played it loose with that rule, but before the race, drivers were warned that enforcement would be stringent. Of course, the announcement came with the caveat that all rulings were subject to ''NASCAR's judgment'' -- no black and white there.
You say Fords are running too well on restrictor-plate tracks? No problem. NASCAR will tweak a spoiler or adjust a metal strip on the car to let the Chevys catch up.
For one night, NASCAR could have done that just for Junior, the biggest cynics might say. Naturally, NASCAR officials deny the fix was in Saturday night, and there are facts to back them up.
A quick reality check:
--Earnhardt had the most dominant car all weekend long. He led 116 of 160 laps. Sure, he only qualified 13th, but qualifying doesn't mean much in NASCAR, because the conditions are so drastically different from the races.
--Earnhardt and Waltrip also had the two best cars at the Daytona 500 -- proof that the teams at Dale Earnhardt Inc. clearly have found some edge in restrictor-plate racing.
--On his final pit stop, Earnhardt changed four tires, something none of the six drivers he overcame during his charge to the front had done. It's much easier to pass the way Earnhardt did on four fresh, well-handling tires than the worn ones the vanquished drivers were using.
''I don't think it was fixed by any means,'' driver Jeremy Mayfield said, being questioned on the Tony Kornheiser radio show. ''They were prepared and ready to win.''
Still, this is a day for Doubting Thomases, and they have plenty of ammunition.
Remember what NBC did last week? Network producers admitted giving drivers a little pep talk about post-race celebrations. Don't forget to smile, they said.
No, the network executives bristled, they weren't trying to stage celebrations in Victory Lane. But yes, a little post-race excitement wouldn't hurt. It is, after all, a $2.8 billion TV contract.
Spinning doughnuts in the infield after his victory, making a mosh-pit dive into the arms of his crew, Earnhardt gave the fans and TV cameras everything they could have hoped for Saturday night.
There was no way that kind of scene could have been staged. Or so we'd like to believe.
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