The Daytona 500 is an afternoon race — always has been. There’s something that feels right about the sun shining down on the newest race champion as he climbs from his car. Darkness and the 500 go together like tuna and peanut butter or Jamie McMurray and McDonald’s. It’s just not natural.
On Sunday, however, a fairy tale ending came around 11:30 PM under the Musco lights. Nine hours earlier, it seemed unlikely that the Sprint Cup Series would put on one of the best restrictor plate shows it has put on in a decade; the probability of the field running single-file the whole way to the finish actually seemed higher.
Exciting three-wide racing came to Daytona — but not until a likely savior in the form of weather came first.
The first 32 green-flag laps of Sunday’s race were less exciting than watching paint dry. The cars formed a train around the top lane. Drivers were more content to race in line, sitting 28th than to take a risk being hung out to dry on the inside line. And after the race was red-flagged because of rain, fans were given a reminder of what to stay tuned for when the 2013 Daytona 500 was re-aired; just about the entire 2013 race was a single-file parade. It was difficult to tell the difference between the two races — so difficult, in fact, that some fans congratulated Jimmie Johnson for winning again on Twitter. Even FOX News — keep in mind, the race was televised on FOX — posted that Johnson was a three-time Daytona 500 champion. Oops.
It was all less than encouraging. NASCAR’s biggest race was being turned into a mockery. Luckily, the rain saved it. The rain cleared the rubber off the track and when the race resumed under the lights, more than six hours later, the temperature had cooled. Drivers who were too afraid to make moves before the rain came because they were sliding all over suddenly felt like Superman. Even though the race was only 20 percent completed when it was restarted, the intensity picked up immediately as if there were 20 laps to go. It was a far cry from the 2013 version, where nobody really seemed to care if they won.
FOX deserves credit, too. After more than six hours of rain and its primetime lineup approaching, the network easily could’ve restarted the race on FOX Sports 1 or Animal Planet, but it stuck by the race. The television ratings hadn’t been released by the time I wrote this column, but I’m sure that move paid off in the ratings. Two years ago, when the race was run on a Monday night, ratings went through the roof for racing that didn’t match what we saw Sunday. NASCAR’s only real competition on Sunday night was zombies — The Walking Dead on AMC — plus the Sochi Olympics’ closing ceremonies.
Even The Walking Dead couldn’t match the storyline on Sunday. In the first race with a black No. 3 car in the Daytona 500 since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, Austin Dillon ran over everyone except Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the pace car. His wreckage left Bear Bond on the backstretch that clung to Earnhardt’s grill before the last restart. It’s one of those odd moments that will be aired over and over in coming years, much like Sterling Marlin climbing from his car during a red flag in the 2002 Daytona 500 while leading to pull on his own fender.
Earnhardt, Jr. still raced to an emotional victory that fans at home felt a part of because of FOX’s in-car camera. NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France probably had the same jubilant look on his face as Junior afterward, knowing NASCAR also scored a victory Sunday after France’s sweeping offseason changes.
(Scratch that, France was most likely watching college basketball.)
Seriously, NASCAR executives couldn’t have drawn it up any better if they tried. The sport’s Most Popular Driver raced to victory, prevailing in their biggest race in a thrilling finish.
If the rain never came, none of it would’ve happened. The race would’ve followed suit with the 2013 version, and even if Earnhardt, Jr. had won, the lasting impact would’ve been how the racing fell short of expectations again. But the rain washed away the rubber and any memories we had of the first 32 laps, or the 2013 race, pushed the finale back to primetime and provided one of the best finishes in recent memory with the world watching.
And that’s the story of how rain saved the Daytona 500.