Daytona 500, Danica Patrick's debut on hold

Danica Patrick waves to the crowd during driver introductions for the Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Blessed of late by exciting action, an infusion of star power and a plethora of enticing storylines, NASCAR rolled toward its 54th Daytona 500 prepared to fully shake off some recent struggles.

And then the rain came.

For the first time in history, NASCAR had to postpone its signature, start-of-the-season event until Monday at 7 p.m. ET (weather permitting, of course).

"It's one of those days here in Daytona," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

You can't mess with Mother Nature, except for decades NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. did. The race had never even started late and while it has been cut short due to rain, it's never been pushed to Monday before.

Now, at a rather inopportune time and ironically in the middle of a severe Central Florida drought, the rain struck back.

This year's edition has been highly anticipated and appeared poised to draw significant television ratings. The arrival of Danica Patrick has produced new fans, a heavy push of media coverage and the new/old debate on how she'd do against the boys in NASCAR's grandest event.

It comes on the heels of last year's Great American Race that produced 74 lead changes, 22 different leaders (more than half the 43-car field) and 16 cautions – all Daytona 500 records.

Twelve cars had a legitimate shot to win in the final, furious laps only to see a fresh-faced 20-year old rookie named Trevor Bayne take the checkers. He was so surprised he missed the turn to victory lane.

The 2011 season was highlighted by a remarkable Chase for the Cup, NASCAR's often-criticized playoff system, producing a finale in Homestead, Fla., that saw Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart – 1-2 in points going in – go 1-2 on the final lap. In the end, Stewart won by delivering an electric performance to win via a tie-breaker.

Speedweeks here – the seven-day run-up to the main event – did nothing to dampen enthusiasm.

Last Saturday's Budweiser Shootout saw the return of the 43-car pack racing and produced a photo finish won by Kyle Busch. Then there was Patrick's debut. Her first Sprint Cup start came in the Duel 150 qualifying race, which ended in a vicious crash. Twenty-four hours later, she claimed the pole for Saturday's Nationwide race, which again ended in a crash for the 29-year-old former IndyCar driver.

Patrick's presence has spiked Web traffic, television ratings and other tangible measurements. And with her around, everything just felt bigger, with throngs of race fans crowding beach bars and infield parties here all week. Race officials expected a crowd of at least 150,000.

There's no stopping the rain, though, and after a week of brilliant sunshine and fine temperatures the morning broke overcast and deteriorated from there. It was raining down at the beach – six miles east of the track – by 10 a.m. By noon, the 2.5-mile superspeedway was drenched, cars were wrapped and drivers and crew chiefs ambled about under umbrellas.

NASCAR brought out drying equipment several times only to be foiled by another burst of rain. The postponement was announced just after 5 p.m. ET.

NASCAR had a huge surge in popularity in the 1990s and then hit a prolonged scale back and growing pains. It may never be as popular as its officials hoped. It did seem to have something working in its favor, though.

Fresh blood, old action, terrific momentum.

The sport will be fine. The race will be run eventually. Maybe Monday. Maybe Tuesday.

But this sure feels like a perfect opportunity that has been washed out.

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