An ending Ricky Bobby would love

The first 150 laps of the Daytona 500 was like watching drivers circle the lot at the grocery store politely waiting for parking spots to open up.

Then the sun went down, a full moon popped up and everybody started behaving like the Wolfman – suddenly in a hurry and only too eager to mix it up.

The last 50 laps featured five wrecks, all involving multiple cars, and small wonder. There was no room. With three dozen circuits left, the top 20 were separated by a second. With six laps to go, the field was as tightly packed as it was at the start.

At the finish, as car parts, smoke and sparks flew through the air behind them like the climactic chase scene from “The Road Warrior,” Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin were racing side by side at around 200 mph separated by the length of a car hood. Seconds later, providing a perfect exclamation point, Clint Bowyer skidded across the line with his car upside down – and on fire.

The guys calling the race on Fox, with decades of NASCAR experience between them, scoured their collective memory banks to come up with an ending nearly this wild.

One referenced “Joey Chitwood,” the daredevil who performed death-defying auto stunts beginning in the 1940s, and whose best work is still available on Another nominated the 1979 Daytona 500, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison locked up in a final-lap battle, spun into the infield, started throwing insults and then punches as Allison’s brother, Bobby, pulled over and joined the fray. The fight garnered so much attention that a nation watching the first-ever live broadcast of a 500-mile race barely noticed Richard Petty making up a half-lap deficit and sneaking across the finish line.

Grand as that race was, driver-turned-broadcaster Darrell Waltrip came up with an even better one.

“This finish,” he said, recalling last year’s NASCAR-inspired hit comedy, “It’s ‘Ricky Bobby.’ It couldn’t have been any better.”

Nor better-timed.

Think back to the events of last week, when NASCAR czar Brian France gave his upbeat state-of-the-sport address. He boasted about new TV partners, new sponsors, a new carmaker coming on-board to challenge America’s Big Three and the additional responsibilities all that money rolling in would place on the people who make the sport go.

Then an hour or so later, his handlers announced four teams caught cheating would lose their crew chiefs for Sunday’s race. A fifth team, headed by owner-driver Michael Waltrip, was busted the following day. That may have been the most embarrassing development of all, since he was fronting for new series-entrant Toyota, a manufacturer that knew little about NASCAR’s notorious past and liked seeing its reputation smudged with oil even less.

The funny thing is that hijinks have been on the way out the last half-dozen or so years, as NASCAR embarked on an NFL-style expansion plan, growing more homogeneous than homespun, more choreographed than chaotic in the bargain.