FONTANA, Calif. – Rarely do I stick up for NASCAR, but this time I will. Sort of.
Whatever it did Sunday, it was screwed.
Call the Auto Club 500 early in the day because of a lousy forecast and even lousier track conditions, fans would have screamed it didn't give Mother Nature a chance. Run the race like it did only to have it stalled three different times because of rain and still fans complained.
It truly was a Catch-22.
It ran 87 laps Sunday, and Monday it'll run some more, beginning at 1 p.m. ET.
Be certain about this: No one wants to race on Monday. The teams don't because it's another day on the road, which means another round of per diems, which don't come cheap. Television doesn't want to delay things because no one's home to watch on a weekday. Fans don't want a Monday race because they're here today and they hadn't planned on being here tomorrow. And NASCAR wants to get the race in on time for all these reasons.
So what do they do?
Sunday morning, NASCAR met with track officials to determine a plan. They knew they were up against it but figured there would be enough of a window to get the race in.
"We ask ourselves, can we get the whole thing in?" explained NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp. "If we think we can get it in, we go."
Rain delayed the scheduled 1:15 p.m. local start, but by around 3:15 p.m. the track was dry enough for racing. Most of it, anyway.
The cars got rolling shortly thereafter. But just before NASCAR was about ready to go green, Michael Waltrip suffered a broken oil line during pace laps, forcing NASCAR to delay the race even further while crews cleaned up his mess.
Then, just 21 laps into the race, things went from bad to worse. Casey Mears spun coming out of Turn 2, Sam Hornish slammed into him and a fire erupted, all of which brought out a red flag that halted the race.
And that was just the start of it.
Even before the red flag, some drivers were concerned about a "weeper" that was leaking water onto the track in Turn 2, exactly where Mears crashed. At this point, NASCAR could have called it a day. The weeper was a legitimate safety issue.
But try explaining why you're postponing a race to a fan standing on the frontstretch who's staring at nothing but dry asphalt.
Instead of calling the race, NASCAR went to fix the problem. Using a circular saw, crew members actually cut a groove in the track that ran from the weeper down to the apron.
But doing so took nearly an hour, which closed the window from one weather front to the next. By the time the race resumed, more weather was rolling in. Eighteen laps later, rain fell again.
Like Doyle Brunson three raises in before the flop, NASCAR was committed. It couldn't fold now, even if it meant sticking through a five-hour rain delay before finally calling the race around 2 a.m. on the East Coast.
Sure NASCAR folks cringed at every drop of rain, wishing they'd folded hours ago. But if you've ever been in that position, sitting at a table, staring at a pot filled with your chips, then you know the feeling. They had to stick around for the river.
Yes, it was a joke. Yes, it was ridiculous. Call it anything stupid you want and that's exactly what it was.
But I'm willing to bet that if they had been able to get the race in Sunday night, most of those who were ticked off about the delay would have been happier Monday morning if they were heading home instead of back to the track.