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Rain Leads to Postponement of Daytona 500
History was made at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, but not the kind that anyone at Daytona International Speedway wanted to see. For the first time in the event's long history, the Great American Race has been postponed to Monday because of weather.
After battling intermittent showers all day, NASCAR officials announced shortly after 5 p.m. local time that the 54th running of the Daytona 500 had been pushed back to noon Monday. Although NASCAR's showcase event had been shortened four previous times due to the elements, it had never been completely postponed -- until Sunday, when jet dryers battled rain all afternoon, and a gloomy forecast into the evening prevented any attempt at running the race under the lights.
And with that, a streak that began with the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 came to an end.
"I think that's a pretty good record for NASCAR," said Carl Edwards, the pole winner for the event. "They've been living right to have 53 of these and never have one of them postponed. That's pretty spectacular. We'll come race tomorrow. I think everyone is really excited about this race. All the drivers I've spoken with, the fans -- this is going to be a very good Daytona 500. NASCAR, they're doing the right thing in not dragging this out. Everybody knows we'll be racing tomorrow during the day, it will be a good event, and hopefully the weather will hold off and we won't be in this same position tomorrow."
The green flag is scheduled to fall at 12:01 p.m. local time Monday. The rescheduled event will air on Fox television, and tickets will be available at the Daytona ticket office or at the gate.
"Long day," track president Joie Chitwood III said. "We attempted our best to get the track dry. It seemed like every time we got close, another pocket of rain showed up. We waited as long as we could in terms of the process, how long it might take to dry the track, and then what was reasonable in terms of our fans staying and enjoying the event."
Light rain fell much of Sunday morning, but let up enough at one point for NASCAR officials to send jet dryers out on the track and revive hopes of the cars rolling off at the scheduled 1:29 p.m. local start time. But as pre-race festivities concluded, the heaviest rain of the day moved in, undoing the work the dryers had already done. Although Daytona has 10 jet dryers at its disposal, as well as 3,500 pounds of jet fuel on site and more available at an adjacent airport, another pocket of rain that moved in at about 5:15 p.m. local so soaked the pavement that the drying process would have had to begin all over again.
"Once that happened, we made the decision that would not be able to get the track dry to actually have an event tonight that would work," Chitwood said. "... Obviously, it's very frustrating. I felt like we had an unbelievably good Speedweeks up until this point. ... It is deflating. We've just got to suck it back up, and make sure [Monday] we do a good job and give our fans what they expect, which is a great Daytona 500."
The forecast for Monday is for a 70 chance of rain during the day, according to The Weather Channel, with a possible window in the afternoon. There is also a 40 percent chance of rain for Monday night. Chitwood conceded the possibility that the event would be run under the lights, but at the moment didn't want to consider going beyond that.
"By the afternoon, it looks like the forecast is much better," he said. "So I think we'll play it out best we can. No different than what we did today -- we're going to wait until the last possible minute to make a decision in which we would not run the race. So we want to exhaust every opportunity of getting the track dry and getting the race started. I would anticipate as we did today, if that at 5, 6 o'clock, if there's still rain on track, then you would start to see us make some decisions. But I think we'll play it out as long as we can. I don't even want to talk about Tuesday night now."
As it is, competitors will have to spend at least one more night with the sport's biggest event on their minds.
"That does make it even more frustrating, knowing that we have a good car, starting on the front row of the Daytona 500 and I feel like we can win this race," said Greg Biffle, who will start second. "There's just so much anxiety. I've watched all the programming leading up to this with all the interviews, and then to just put it on hold makes it tough for a driver because there's all kinds of adrenaline, and then you have to try to sleep tonight. It's still a big race, so you try to stay hydrated for tomorrow."
Although the Daytona 500 had never before been postponed by weather, it has been impacted many times by the elements. The first 10 laps in 1963 were run under yellow because of rain, and the 1965 and 1966 editions were both rain-shortened. The 1979 event started under caution because of rain, as were six laps in the middle of the 1992 race. A red flag of almost two hours was issued in the 1995 race for rain, and two recent winners -- Michael Waltrip in 2003 and Matt Kenseth in 2009 -- went to Victory Lane after events were shortened by the elements.
But none of those events were completely postponed, an event that presents a unique set of challenges for all involved. "This is one of the toughest things for us drivers," Edwards said. "... When you put [it] off for another day, for all of us, it's really who can stay focused for another day, and that's not just the drivers. That's the pit crews, crew chiefs, everyone, the officials. But I think we'll be just fine."
Drivers don't expect the rain to have a noticeable effect on the race track, which was resurfaced after the 2010 edition. "I don't think anybody will have an issue," said Edwards, who added that the asphalt will be more abrasive at the green flag because the rubber will have been washed off the surface.
Biffle agreed. "I think this race track, because of the grip and the downforce the race cars have, I think that you won't see a big difference with the track rubbering up," he said. "The speeds will be a little bit faster because the track will be green, but I think for that first run the track is going to get some rubber on it. NASCAR will probably do a competition caution just to make sure that everything is going OK -- probably lap 30 or 25 -- so I think it'll be OK. It'll just be fast at [noon] when we start, but then it'll be the same game after the first pit stop."
The postponement comes in the first year after the Daytona 500 was shifted back a week on the schedule, to tighten up the early portion of the Sprint Cup slate and avoid potential conflicts with other major sporting events on NASCAR's biggest day.
"At the end of the day, I'm sure I'm going to have some customers tell me about the date change and the challenges that we have with it," Chitwood said. "But I think weather is unpredictable. So we'll deal with it. I don't anticipate this would force us to change the date in the future. I think based on the NASCAR schedule, the TV schedule on whole, this was the right move for the industry. We'll continue to work with the last weekend of February. It's unfortunate that this had to happen the first year after we made that change. I'm sure I'll be talking to a number of customers in the next weeks ahead about that situation."
The 54th Daytona 500, coming on the heels of the dramatic finish to last year's Sprint Cup championship battle, attracted a crowd of celebrity guests that included Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, actress Jane Lynch, model Kate Upton, professional wrestler John Cena, mixed-martial arts fighter John Jones, New York Giants football players Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, singer Lenny Kravitz, and South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier. It's unknown whether any of those famous names will still be at the track on Monday.
"Anytime you have to wait to race later, it has a different atmosphere," Edwards said. "But, I mean, we got to go out there, we got to take part in the driver intros. We got to go to the drivers' meeting and see all the celebrities and everybody that had come. Yeah, that stuff is neat. It's neat to see that much interest in our sport. I think it tells you a lot about how big the Daytona 500 is. But then whenever you have these races, you wait till the next day, you go out there, walk up to the car, they feel a little different. They feel more like a pure racing event. It feels more like a short track event. I don't know how to explain it. ... There's not as much pageantry. It's more a feeling of just a pure race."