DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For 53 years, the Daytona 500 started without a hitch – run every time on a Sunday afternoon. On the 54th, it rained, confusion and contingency plans filled the air, and no one was certain what to do as the radar for Monday grew more ominous.
Now NASCAR has its plan, the weather forecasts look like they may comply, and, all things considered, this might be the best thing to possibly happen.
The Daytona 500 is scheduled to go green at 7 p.m. ET, under the lights, a sort of "Monday Night Football" feel to the entire thing.
In some ways it's perfect for the debut of Danica Patrick, who no matter the endless debate about her ability as a driver, unquestionably has brought a new and broader fan base to the table. Presumably there is a segment of the public that's curious enough to tune in and was never wedded to the traditional Sunday afternoon start time of most Sprint Cup races.
Now, it's the Great American Race and a modern American celebrity coming together – in prime time.
"Certainly you like to try to make some lemonade out of lemons," NASCAR president Mike Helton said Monday morning. "Ideally the race would have started yesterday as scheduled, and it would have been sunny, and we would have been celebrating a Daytona 500 champion today. But under the circumstances, we're just trying to make the best decisions collectively."
All day Sunday, NASCAR was focused on the spirit of the competition. It tried desperately to get the race in, bringing out a fleet of drying machines in attempt to prepare the 2.5-mile track during lulls in the rain.
As the soaking continued, though, that was impossible. For the first time ever, the race was moved to Monday, originally rescheduled for 12:01 p.m. NASCAR hoped to force the race in through a forecast of scattered showers. However, Monday broke to a nasty overcast and steady rain, which will get worse before it gets better.
On came Plan C, and if it comes off, the impact could be significant.
NASCAR is riding a crest of momentum of late. Its product is very good. Its 2011 season was one of its best – from the exciting and unique Daytona 500 to the last-lap duel of the Chase for the Sprint Cup between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
Speedweeks here have been exciting and intriguing, with last-lap passes, heavy-impact crashes and a steady diet of Danica – she even won the pole for last Saturday's Nationwide Series race – all setting the tone for what has been one of the most highly anticipated Daytona 500s in memory.
This felt like it could be something big, something special. But would anyone really want to have the climactic ending come on a Monday afternoon while most of the country is either at work or school?
The other options – run it on Tuesday or postpone it entirely until April 8, Easter Sunday – each contained their own problems.
Monday night is the best option out there. If the rain clears through as expected by 4 p.m. ET, then there is time to blow the track dry and, perhaps, start under full green and let her rip – right in the heart of prime-time programming.
This will be the first weeknight, prime-time race in NASCAR's history. There has been a slow undercurrent of debate that the circuit should start its fall Chase for the Cup on a weeknight in an effort to call attention to its playoff system and avoid such overwhelming competition from a Sunday slate of NFL games.
Maybe this is the forced experiment that makes that a reality.
No, the grandstands won't be packed like a typical sun-splashed Sunday afternoon, when 150,000-plus pack the place. It won't be as colorful or as family friendly. Plenty of fans had to leave early, to get back to the real world.
None of that was avoidable, though. The rain is the rain.
All things considered, Monday prime time, under the lights, a new look for a sport with some new energy, could produce a bit of magic.
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- Daytona 500