If you’re going to have to postpone the biggest race of the year to Monday night, you might as well pull out all the stops. NASCAR found itself in that very situation on Monday night, and suffice it to say, they pulled out all the stops. The 54th Daytona 500 is going to go down in history with the 1979 edition as one of the most-momentous races for NASCAR, long-term.
Well, being run in primetime on a major network with the most famous female driver in the world making her Sprint Cup debut and a ton of momentum from 2011 all work, for starters. A wreck on Lap 2 that takes out a five-time champion and the most famous female driver in the world at the same time adds to it.
Juan Pablo Montoya’s car breaking and plowing the jet-fueled track dryer, setting off a conflagration that threatened to burn down Turn 3 will be played on every news broadcast and sports station for the next week.
That doesn’t hurt the ol’ TV ratings in the least, one would think.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a full-on test of racing in primetime on a day other than Saturday or Sunday. A Speedweeks that threatened to careen totally out of control with the rain that hit the Speedway on Sunday morning turned out to be one of those once-in-a-generation moments that, for one reason or another, resonated with a large portion of the TV-watching public a day later. FOX and partner SPEED are reaping benefits from this rare, primetime, non-weekend telecast. An entire sporting night to be had largely to themselves is a huge bonus.
If you’ll remember, back in 1979, the Northeast had been slammed by a blizzard and the population was largely homebound. There was not much else to watch on TV that Sunday, and when the race ended and the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough commenced to whoopin’ on each other, those snowbound people sat there enthralled at NASCAR. As Ken Squier and Chris Economaki called the race, a whole generation of people who had never heard of Richard Petty or Cale or Bobby or Donnie suddenly found something they liked.
That single event, combined with the presence of President Ronald Reagan at Daytona on the Fourth of July to see Petty win No. 200, did more to advance NASCAR’s cause than any race or any event in the sport’s history to that point. When Petty won that Firecracker 400 in 1984, there was a photo of Reagan and Petty in the press box that ran on the front page of _The New York Times,_ above the fold, the following day.
These events were, obviously, in the days before Twitter and the Internet. Now, the Twitter timeline is racing faster than the cars are, and Facebook is lighting it up. The message boards on NASCAR sites are clogged. Even the mundanes, those who have not yet discovered the glory of NASCAR, are tuning in, drawn by the Twitpics and Tweets and blogosphere chatter.
While this year’s Daytona 500 might not be an artistic success, it certainly will prove to be a watershed moment for the sport, if you’ll pardon the pun. Add in the Danica factor and you’ve got something that trends among women, who are always a huge component of the total NASCAR audience, as well as among those men who either like Danica or don’t. There’s been more kvetching about the all-Danica, all-the-time coverage than anything since the Busch brothers were Public Enemy No. 1 and No. 1a.
People who, when they woke up this morning, had no idea they’d be up at nearly 11 PM commenting on something like NASCAR are paying attention. And generally, when they comment, they’re spelling NASCAR correctly.
Advantage, our sport.
As I wrote the above, a Tweet flashed across the screen. “Basketball needs to come back… I’m watching @NASCAR. This is CRAZY.” See what I mean? Brad Keselowski, who had his phone in the car with him, took a photo of the fire from Turn 2 and posted it on his “Twitter page.”:http://www.twitter.com/keselowski/ Everybody wanted to see it, and Keselowski doubled his followers in the hour-plus it took to fix the track as a result.
When the story of NASCAR is told, 40 years from now, this year’s race will be a part of it. The first postponement in 53+ years was big news, as was the “Big One” early and the really weird crash that saw the jet dryer get taken out by a broken car and burst into flames. As Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag at 12:56 AM, the 54th Daytona 500 went into the record books as one of the strangest, most exciting and important races in NASCAR history.
The fans, who waited through a long Sunday and an even longer Monday and even into Tuesday, it was one of those races that will end up as, “Were you there in 2012?” If you were there, it will be a mark in your fan book. For NASCAR, it might touch off a rebirth of sorts. We don’t know yet how many TV viewers stayed to the end of the race, but there were quite a few. This event will be one of the moments they’ll be talking about for years.
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