Column: Photo finishes, a picture-perfect snapshot of NASCAR's beauty, skill for 76 years

Kyle Larson was sorry to have won by the narrowest margin in NASCAR history.

OK, maybe the Hendrick Motorsports superstar wasn‘t apologizing after Sunday‘s fender-banging battle for the ages with Chris Buescher at Kansas Speedway.

But the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion felt a little unworthy of the title being thrust upon his highlight-reel win.

Closest Finish Ever? According to a high-speed camera capturing thousands of time-stamped images per second, that was indisputable.

Best Finish Ever? According to the man who won, there was no debate.

Sunday at Kansas Speedway wasn‘t it.

“That finish with (Ricky) Craven and Kurt (Busch) was, in my opinion, way cooler,” Larson said, referencing the slam-bang ending of March 16, 2003, at Darlington Raceway. “That was like a battle the last however-many laps and came down to a photo finish. But no, this was still cool and hopefully it can hang on for a long time. What was the finish before this one that was the closest?”

Well, actually Kyle … it was Craven over Busch.

The news left Larson on the verge of crestfallen.

“Oh shoot, that‘s what we broke? Damn. I didn‘t think this was as close as that.”

He then paused to remember the previous Best Finish Ever, which happened all of 10 races ago in this season of 1.5-mile magic.

“How is Atlanta not the closest ever?” he asked the roomful of reporters about the Daniel Suárez-Ryan Blaney-Kyle Busch showdown at Atlanta Motor Speedway in February. “There‘s three cars. Like that should mathematically be better than two cars.”

The finish of Atlanta was a photo finish
The finish of Atlanta was a photo finish

If we‘re now into comparisons, don‘t stop there.

What about Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick driving through each other at Phoenix Raceway in March 2016? Harvick‘s nail-bitingly poignant first career win over Jeff Gordon at Atlanta 15 years earlier? Gordon‘s $1 million body slam on Jeff Burton to hold on for the 1997 Southern 500?

And the fantastic finishes stretch far before the dawn of electronic scoring in 1993.

Let‘s go back 65 years to what once was the most famous photo finish in NASCAR history.

In late February 1959, Lee Petty sat in a Daytona Beach hotel room for three days until Bill France ruled the Petty Enterprises founder had won the first edition of “The Great American Race.”

When France called him with the good news, Petty picked up his winner‘s check from the NASCAR office and let Johnny Beauchamp keep the trophy as the initially declared winner (a story that Kyle Petty delightfully told on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast seven years ago).

The point here is as simple as racing‘s most basic premise: The car that crosses the finish line first wins.

And for roughly 76 years, razor-thin endings have been part and parcel to NASCAR.

Whether it takes 72 hours or roughly a minute to determine the winner, it‘s always an intrinsic game of inches.

Not every season has as many memorable final chapters as 2024. Larson credited the Next Gen car for being a game-changer on bigger speedways, and that idea has some merit.

But it‘s also reductive to fall too far down the rabbit hole of proclaiming that last-lap classics are related only to the equipment or the machinery. That they are predicated on the rules packages or the race tracks.

That overlooks the real continuum from seven decades of photo finishes.

These are all human interest stories.

After three-plus hours and 400 miles, cars can be separated by the width of a few smartphones because their drivers made all the right moves — and often with impeccable bravery, sublime skill and a sharp wit.

That was a constant when Petty navigated the first draft of Daytona. When David Pearson slammed his car into gear to beat Richard Petty in 1976. When Kyle Busch survived a slide job gone wrong by Larson to conquer Chicagoland in 2018.

To paraphrase LeBron James, we again got to witness greatness Sunday at Kansas. It‘s a birthright of being a NASCAR fan.

So take a moment and soak in the sport‘s latest Best Finish Ever.

As its winner noted, it won‘t be the last.

Nate Ryan has written about NASCAR since 1996 while working at the San Bernardino Sun, Richmond Times-Dispatch, USA TODAY and for the past 10 years at NBC Sports Digital. He is the host of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast and also has covered various other motorsports, including the IndyCar and IMSA series.