Sixteen minutes. That's all it took for NASCAR to look at the radar and decide the 2009 Daytona 500 would become the Daytona 380. It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the right one.
Of course, the critics are out in droves, wondering how the Super Bowl of racing could end in such a way. The same chorus was sung a few years ago when critics killed MLB commissioner Bud Selig for "botching" his handling of the All-Star Game. As if calling in Nomar Garciaparra to pitch was an option.
This sort of narrow approach to big decisions makes me want to scream.
Admittedly, our job in the media is to play Monday morning quarterback. The problem is that we're quick to criticize without taking into account all the variables or supply a viable alternative. In the case of the Daytona 380, it was both.
Here's what NASCAR was looking at Sunday: a packed house of around 170,000 fans, the majority of which had traveled considerable distance, expecting to see a Daytona 500 champion crowned; a television network forcing its hand to start around 3:40 p.m. ET; and a weather forecast calling for rain.
Would NASCAR officials have liked to start the race sooner to try beating the weather? Sure. Could they have? No.
Instead, they went ahead with the show, praying rain would hold off long enough to get the race in. And it did, somehow, because for hours it rained almost everywhere in northeastern Florida but Daytona Beach.
Once wet, the 2½-mile Daytona International Speedway takes between two and three hours to dry. The rain came at 6:32 p.m. ET. Staring NASCAR officials in the face was a radar screen covered in green. At that point, they had to make a call. Wait it out or declare Matt Kenseth the winner.
Almost a year ago to the day, rain pounded Auto Club Speedway in otherwise dry Southern California, stopping the race there three times. After the final rain delay, NASCAR waited nearly five hours before postponing the event until the next day – unlike Sunday's race at Daytona, the California race had not yet reached the halfway point, which makes it official.
That officials waited so long to come to a decision in California drew the ire of many, from media to fans. Some complained that NASCAR should have waited it out; others said NASCAR should have called it much sooner.
Several Julys ago at Daytona, NASCAR opted to wait out the rain. The 2005 Pepsi 400 didn't start until 10:38 p.m. ET, didn't end until 1:42 a.m. NASCAR was criticized then, too.
As it turned out Sunday, rain fell in Daytona for several hours before letting up, meaning if everything had gone perfectly the race would have re-started no earlier than midnight ET and ended, again if everything went perfectly, around 1:30 a.m. Realistically, it would have been much later.
If you think NASCAR officials took pleasure in calling the race early, think again. Ratings were down, which they knew they would be, and the crowning of the winner of their biggest race was met with a thud, which they knew would happen.
Now, instead of talking about Kenseth, we're talking about rain. So yeah, NASCAR lost, too.
Of course, the questions will come …
Why not continue the race on Monday?
Because just like in baseball, the rule states that once the race reaches the halfway point, it's official, and every team, knowing rain was on the way, formed a strategy around the weather.
But Major League Baseball changed its rule in the World Series, didn't it?
Yep, but you can't compare baseball and NASCAR. As NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston points out, NASCAR fans aren't local. The average distance a fan travels to a race is 250 miles. It's a legitimate point, considering that postponing the race even one day means another night in a hotel, three more meals out and the probability of missing a day of work.
"It's totally different conditions," Poston said. "In their sport, fans have been there for two or three hours. In ours, they've been there for two or three days."
"Besides, you can't be sure if the next day you're going to go racing. That's why the rule is in place."
Is it a perfect rule? No. But in a situation where you can't please everyone – which pretty much describes life – you look for a solution that satisfies as many people as possible. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem good enough for many in my profession, most of who never have walked in the decision-makers' shoes.
One more thing …
I asked Poston a hypothetical: What if this were the final race of the season, rain started falling just past the halfway point, and two drivers, competing for the championship, were separated by only a few points? Would NASCAR call the race or postpone it to the next day?
He paused for awhile, then said, "It's a hypothetical. Once faced with that situation, we'll make a decision. At this point, the rules are well-established, and everyone knows what they are."
In other words, NASCAR would do what Bud did – it would change the rule, which would be the right decision.