DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Daytona 500’s 53-year run of starting on time – and finishing on the same day – came to a soggy end Sunday.
A persistent rain kept all 43 cars parked on pit road for four hours after the 1 p.m. scheduled start before NASCAR finally pulled the plug and rescheduled the start for noon today on FOX.
Although the 1965, 1966, 2003 and 2009 Daytona were shortened by rain, stock car’s biggest race had never missed a scheduled green flag start.
“That’s a pretty good record – 53 of these, they must be living right,” Carl Edwards said. “NASCAR did the right thing by not dragging this out.
“This is still going to be a very good Daytona 500.”
After spending months preparing for the race, teams could only sit around and hope for the weather to clear.
“Hurry up and wait,” said crew chief Chad Johnston.
The Sprint Cup Series schedule compresses 36 regular season and two all-star events into a 40-week stretch from the end of February through Thanksgiving. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, especially when next week’s race is at Phoenix.
Johnston, who prepares cars for Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, knows his team will be working around the clock to get to Phoenix. If the weather cooperates today – and there’s a 50-percent chance of more showers – haulers will get home to North Carolina after midnight, only to get back on the road by noon Tuesday for the 30-hour cross-country haul to the Arizona desert.
“If we get it in Monday we’ll be all right,” Johnston said. “Any later than that, we’re all in trouble.”
Speedway president Joie Chitwood III said there are no other plans other than racing today.
“It’s tough to even talk Tuesday until we get through (Monday),” he said. “We’ll play it out the best we can. We’ll wait until the last possible minute.”
Drivers spent the afternoon waiting in their motorhomes. Edwards watched the U.S. Open for the Professional Bowlers Association on television. Kasey Kahne’s crew was huddled on pit road watching the NFL Combine. A lot of the drivers spent the afternoon posting messages on the Twitter and Facebook accounts. Bobby Labonte took a nap and cleaned out his refrigerator.
“This is one of the toughest things for drivers. When you put that off for another day, it’s who can stay focused,” Edwards said. “If I did have any plans, I think I’d put them on hold for the Daytona 500.”
Every team uses a specialty car for the Daytona 500. The cars that eventually will race at the Daytona International Speedway aren’t built to suit the flat, one-mile oval at Phoenix. That means cars, engines and most of the equipment will have to be removed and replaced with new cars.
Johnston already has NAPA cars prepared for the first four races, including stops at Las Vegas on March 11 and Bristol, Tenn., on March 18. That means despite being pressed for time, his team won’t fall behind.
“You’ve got to be in good order, especially this time of year,” Johnston said. “You have to have your car count ready for these first four races. Some of the smaller teams, something like this could really get them behind.”
Compounding the pressures facing every team is the turnaround from Phoenix to Las Vegas requires another swap of cars and equipment. Most teams will send a second hauler with the Las Vegas car because it’s built for high banks and faster speeds.
“Really, the hardest group that it’s on is the truck drivers,” Joey Logano’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, said. “Getting the trucks back and getting those turned around and cleaned up, especially when you’ve been here for 10 days and you accumulate a lot of dirty laundry in 10 days.
“Getting it in (Sunday) would be a plus as far as staying on schedule. If not, the thing is that (today) doesn’t look any better.”
The rain also washed away the rubber that was embedded in the pavement during Friday’s Camping World Truck and Saturday’s Nationwide series races.
However, that wasn’t as much of a concern as the lingering doubt of more rain.
“I think that you won’t see a big difference,” Greg Biffle said. “The speeds will be a little bit faster because the track will be green.”
Some teams were so eager to get home they flew back to Charlotte Sunday afternoon and will return early today.
Despite the rain, the Daytona International Speedway was the place to be seen Sunday.
Included in the throng of celebrities was Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney, who shook hands with fans and team on pit road before the race.
Lenny Kravitz did a short pre-race concert with WWE superstar John Cena, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Kate Upton, New York Giants Jason Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyiora, Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, Tampa Bay Lightning players Vincent Lecavalier and Marc Andre-Bergeron, actors Jane Lynch and Sean Hayes and UFC fighters Jon “Bones” Jones, Christopher Tuchscherer, Brock Lesnar and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
Most of the celebrities left the track during the delay, but Cena remained at Daytona since he’s scheduled to wave the green flag today – weather permitting.