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From the Marbles

Hot/Not: Monday night NASCAR works for 36 million people

Geoffrey Miller
From The Marbles

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Matt Kenseth celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

The list — rather, a laundry list to befit NASCAR's use of Tide to save the end of the race — of reasons why NASCAR's foray into unknown territory Monday night — when, for the first time, it held a race in prime time — is almost as long as the red flag caused by the exploding jet dryer.

It could include things like the lack of promotion about the rescheduled time for the Daytona 500, a TV network pre-empting popular shows, competition from other prime time slots and general unawareness that the race — NASCAR's most-watched by the general public — was going green on a non-NASCAR night after a Sunday full of dashed hopes and disappointment.

[Related: 2003 champion Matt Kenseth claims second Daytona 500 victory, holds off Dale Earnhardt Jr.]

But instead, the Sunday rain showers that created a first in Daytona 500 history by delaying the race until Monday also presented NASCAR with its first great opportunity to try what many have long hypothesized: racing on a weeknight.

And did it ever. The numbers exploded like —and no doubt assisted by — the raging Turn 3 inferno Juan Pablo Montoya's car inadvertently caused by destroying a jet engine used for track cleaning and drying purposes.

In the United States, 36.5 million people saw some portion of the 54th Daytona 500 during it's six-hour broadcast window, making it the most-watched NASCAR broadcast ever for Fox and the second-most watched Daytona 500 in history. Only the 2006 race on NBC was seen by a half-million more people. The Great American Race averaged a whopping 13.7 million viewers during its entirety.

The total audience represented a 22 percent jump from the 2011 race that went off without a hitch and saw young Trevor Bayne take the checkered flag. And, most importantly, Fox led the prime time pack in the Adults 18-49 category and likely influenced a 10 percent drop in last week's Monday winner "The Voice."

[Dan Wetzel: Danica Patrick's Daytona 500 dream turns into nightmare]

The weeknight race even worked at the speedway. NASCAR estimated a healthy 140,000 people came back after sitting through the deluge of rain Sunday and early Monday despite the logistics of air travel, hotel rooms, rental cars and work schedules being a bona fide mess. Sure, that's not a capacity crowd and it's probably an inflated number, but it's still larger than any Super Bowl crowd ever.

These numbers are important for NASCAR because they show that the marquee events can still remain marquee events even away from the traditional Saturday night or Sunday slots. And those numbers are a direct result of less than 12 hours of promotion, as NASCAR announced at 10:15 a.m. ET Monday that it would race at 7 p.m. Monday night. That fact alone says volumes about NASCAR's embrace of social media that all but sent the news of a Monday night NASCAR race virally across the Internet.

But logistically, NASCAR moving to a format that showcases even one or two races per season on a weeknight is a tough flower to blossom.

The largest obstacle, late in NASCAR's season when interest would ideally grow the largest, is the behemoth that is the NFL. Any attempts for NASCAR to rival that with a Monday night race — and even a Thursday night race — would be feeble, at best. This sport needs substantial and sustained growth before that conversation would ever be realistic.

[Related: Juan Pablo Montoya sets Daytona track ablaze after hitting jet dryer]

That leaves us with early and mid-season races at tracks that can handle four important things: race at night, draw a near-capacity crowd, provide consistently exciting action and influence a new audience of NASCAR fans to take note. Simply racing on a weeknight to race on a weeknight is not a smart business idea; growing the level of interest and total audience is.

To me, that leaves a few possible ideas for race locations that would include Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Texas, Richmond, Atlanta, Bristol and Darlington. My most ideal candidate would be Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, despite the current lack of lights at that facility. Change that obstacle and racing at the venue on a weeknight makes a ton of sense.

There'd be sure-fire close racing, certain raised tempers and most likely a dramatic finish. Plus, it's a close venue for teams and has a relatively small seating capacity — making a one-day show for the Sprint Cup Series easier to fill for appearance purposes.

Save for repeating the Daytona 500 on a Monday night — if a rain-delayed edition can be wildly popular, then a scheduled one has the chance to be even more epic — racing on Thursday nights may be best. It would afford opportunities for fans to stay in the event of a rain postponement, and may work well as a way to lead off a weekend where the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series could take center stage at the venue.

[Related: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has another second-place finish at Daytona, winless streak continues]

Thursdays, however, are notoriously popular television nights for most networks, and following a Monday night scheme already laid down by the NFL might be just as smart. Capitalize on a weekend of support series action and feature an improved qualifying system for Sprint Cup teams to generate interest, and then light the candle for a 300- to 400-mile race Monday night that tucks nicely in a three-hour window.

Two days ago, the idea of weeknight racing seemed more far-fetched than the idea of one car beating two in a tandem to win the Daytona 500. Now that we've crossed that bridge — and more importantly — seen how well NASCAR's biggest event can do with shoestring promotion, it's time for NASCAR to explore the options.

The sport has a chance to grow on a special weeknight format. There's no better time to try it.

Did you like seeing the Daytona 500 in Monday night prime time? Let me know below. But before, here's my musings of the best, worst and just OK from the weekend that literally scorched into our memories.

HOT: 200 gallons of jet fuel exploded and later burned in the form of 20-foot flames at the top of a steep bank of pavement Monday night in Daytona Beach. Not a soul was seriously injured, millions focused their attention to the incident in a lighthearted fashion good for the sport and the race was able to carry on. That those facts can be put together is a true testament to some incredible work by the safety officials on scene for the Juan Pablo Montoya vs. track jet dryer incident.

[Dan Wetzel: The 2012 edition of the Great American Race was anything but ordinary]

That said, it's apparent NASCAR is going to need a stronger contingency plan for jet fuel fires. I have no doubt they will, and today remain grateful for the collected effort and intelligent snap decisions of those charged with resolving the situation. That was cool to see.

HOT: Realize that Monday's race could very well be this generation's "And there's a fight!" moment, just as the 1979 Daytona 500 engaged viewers who had never given NASCAR more than a passing thought. It wasn't perfect, but no race is. Monday was damn memorable, and I know I won't be forgetting it. I'm glad to have ridden the roller coaster that this last week was in Daytona.

NOT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. insisted after the race that "NASCAR can't catch a break," and listed the rain delays, the 2010 pothole and the The Great American Jet Fuel Burning incident as sorrowful incidents.

I'll cede him the rain and maybe the pothole, but Monday night's fire — after it was resolved with minimal injury and continued great racing — was the best thing to happen to NASCAR during its smartly done Monday night experiment. Millions tuned to the race to see what the hubbub was about, and a chunk of those hung around until the end. Millions more saw it across television networks and web content, while still others made it their first point of conversation at work Tuesday.

Turn 3 exploded at the Daytona 500 on live television. Everyone lived. They saved the day with Tide, a standard garden spreader, leaf blowers and later another jet dryer.

What's more engaging to red-blooded Americans than that? Let it ride, June Bug.

HOT: Joining the track safety workers in the "deserving a steak dinner" category is the entire Roush Fenway engine department. In the era of identical NASCAR race cars, they captured the entire Daytona 500 front row, won a Gatorade Duel qualifying race and held serve for most of the Daytona 500 before easily strutting to victory lane.

That's all about strong, reliable motors. Kudos.

NOT: Two people were hurt by parts flying off Joey Coulter's fence-ripping crash in the Friday night Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona, primarily because they were located so close to a pack of heavy machines streaking by at 185 miles per hour.

I get that liability in those scenarios tends to fall on the race fan who agreed to sit there knowing the risks, but NASCAR should insist fans sit much farther away from the track surface. The image liability of having fans dying from a nasty crash is not worth it.

HOT: Speaking of fans, how impressive was the attendance Monday night? I'd be willing to bet fewer people will purchase tickets to July's Sprint Cup race at Daytona than returned for a rained-delayed show. The loyalty was just awesome.

NEUTRAL: I personally thought the hybrid racing NASCAR created by limiting tandem drafting in the Sprint Cup Series was a much better show than last year's event. That said, passing seemed to be a premium objective that was hard to accomplish.

[Jeff Passan: Passan: Brad Keselowski triples his Twitter followers during long Daytona delay]

As the Daytona track surface ages, handling going away from drivers during a run will help alleviate that issue. Until then, NASCAR might need to make another round of slight adjustments to increase passing opportunities.

NOT: It's a good thing Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran second in the Daytona 500, because otherwise many would have forgotten Hendrick Motorsports even showed up. The team didn't earn a front row spot, didn't win the Budweiser Shootout, didn't win a qualifying race and failed to finish three of its four Sprint Cup teams. Daytona Speedeeks can be seriously crazy.

HOT: Brad Keselowski tweeting during the red flag and immediately after he crashed was amazing cool, and NASCAR did the right thing in not leveling obscure penalties on the sport's best user of social media. As long as he and other drivers are smart about their in-car social media transactions, NASCAR could make some big strides on other sports on athlete connectivity.

NOT: The #DaytonaHostageCrisis Twitter hashtag used by drivers and media alike was shortsighted. Fans who paid hefty sums of money weren't able to enjoy this once-a-year event thanks to circumstances out of their control. It doesn't reflect well when the people who are paid to be there act like waiting for the race to start is a horrible thing, even in jest.

Grin, and bear it. Or just go home.

HOT/LAST: This is was first time to work directly alongside my Yahoo! colleagues, including the talented list of Nick Bromberg, Jay Busbee, Jay Hart, Jeff Passan and Dan Wetzel. Every minute was a joy, and I learned a lot about how they have been so successful in this fun world, mainly by being able to identify the most interesting part of any story for fans and not getting lost in the minutiae. Those guys work really hard to produce great and engaging content, and I was honored to work alongside them during my fourth trip to NASCAR's iconic race.

That said, this post figures to be my final for this great section of the blogosphere we call From the Marbles. It's a fact of life in this industry, and I'm still holding out hope that something new can be worked out that allows me to rejoin this great team. In the meantime, thanks for all of the fun live chats, comment sections and Twitter back-and-forths. I've enjoyed writing for you, and I hope you've been able to handle me hanging around. Enjoy the excitement of a new racing season!

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter (@GeoffreyMiller).

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