The Daytona 500 is going prime time -- weather permitting.
One day after being postponed by weather for the first time in its long history, NASCAR's biggest race was moved under the lights by more persistent rain that continued in the area Monday morning. The hope had been for the Daytona 500 to go green at 12:13 p.m. ET, but it soon became clear that the elements would not cooperate. Shortly after 10 a.m., series and track officials announced the event had been rescheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
Should the weather clear, it would mark the first time the Daytona 500 has started in prime time. It's ended under the lights before, but never gone green that late. Fox television will broadcast the event.
"We try to make the decision that's good for the entire industry," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "But certainly, we would have liked for the Daytona 500 to run on schedule [Sunday] on a bright sunny day, but it didn't quite happen that way. So now we're trying to get it done as correctly as we can."
That continued an effort that began Sunday, when soggy conditions forced the Daytona 500 to be pushed back from its original 1:29 p.m. start time, and then to another day for the first time in the event's 54-year history. On both days, jet dryers occasionally ventured out onto the race track to try to take advantage of any potential break in the weather. And as was the case Sunday, NASCAR is prepared to go a little later into the night if necessary.
"The flexibility throughout [Sunday] still exists [Monday]," Helton said. "We're targeting 7 o'clock because we feel like it's realistic. If it takes a little bit longer to get ready to go, I think everybody is willing to do that to accomplish the conclusion of the Daytona 500 within a reasonable amount of time. So 7 o'clock is not a drop-dead, critical moment. It's just the time that we felt like it gave us our best shot right now. But we could go a little bit later if it's necessary."
Helton said the decision was made because of the heavy chance of rain forecast throughout the rest of the day Monday. The exact green flag time is 7:02 p.m.
"The last thing we wanted to do was have our fans wait through another long day of rain delays and jet dryer activity," said Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III, "so we felt like this gives them some clarity so they can come up with their plans, and hopefully that means stay at home, stay at their hotel, rest, whatever it is they need to do and they can come out and enjoy the event this evening."
It takes between two and three hours to dry the 2.5-mile track surface, an effort Helton said would continue throughout the day. "Based on the weather, based on NASCAR, we think 7 o'clock is realistic," Chitwood said. "We also have some buffer if we had to delay a little longer than that."
And if the rain persists Monday night? "Tuesday is an option," Helton said. "We're focused on [Monday] and [Monday] afternoon right now, but just so everyone knows, Tuesday is an option before we'd have to reconsider packing up and leaving. But [Tuesday] is an option."
Helton added that the Sprint Cup cars were secured in their garage stalls, and that teams would be allowed to start them and get the engines up to temperature before they roll off the grid. Pre-race ceremonies will be reduced to an invocation, the national anthem, and the command to start engines. And then, hopefully, the Great American Race will at last take place.
"Certainly, we like to think that when we do run the Daytona 500," Helton said, "and the trophy is handed to the winner, and there is a Daytona 500 champion for 2012, that sustains and launches us into the 2012 season with all the right efforts and promotions."