DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR’s premier event, the season-opening Daytona 500 is being delayed by rain.
Heavy showers drenched the famed speedway Sunday afternoon, sending fans scattering for cover and leaving everyone in wait-and-see mode.
Radar shows little relief in sight, too.
“It’s one of those days here in Daytona where it pops up and falls off and pops up and falls off,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “But as the day progresses, we think the chances of the pop-ups diminish quite a bit. Hopefully this will be the last big cell we see and things will start falling apart and we can get the track dry and go on and get finish and run the Daytona 500 today.”
NASCAR officials pushed back the start of the race shortly before the green flag was scheduled to drop.
They intend to wait as long as possible in hopes of getting the 500-mile race in Sunday. NASCAR says Fox is committed to broadcast the event, even it means going head to head with the NBA All-Star game and the Oscars.
It doesn’t look like the Daytona 500 will begin any time soon, though.
The track takes about two and a half hours to dry, but the process can’t be started until it stops raining. No Daytona 500 has ever been postponed.
“We are equipped,” Helton said. “The Daytona International Speedway has every drying piece of machinery they got across the country here today, because we know that the fans at home and the fans here in Daytona want to see the race run. We do, too. The sooner, the better.”
The forecast calls for intermittent showers most of the afternoon, and even worse weather is on tap for Monday.
“I got a feeling this is going to be a long day,” driver David Ragan wrote on his Twitter feed. “I really feel bad for the fans that are soaking wet. I am going to make a grocery store run.”
NASCAR went ahead with driver introductions and the national anthem, so once the track is dry, racing can commence.
Daytona 500 Preview
Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart avoids thinking about what it would be like to finally win a Daytona 500.
Stewart just knows it’s got a lofty spot on his bucket list.
“Very high on it,” he says.
“Some of the wildest, craziest finishes in our sport have come in the Daytona 500. I don’t know how you could honestly sit here and imagine what that (winning) moment would be like. You just hope you get to live it in real life.”
Although he’s won three July races at Daytona International Speedway, Stewart will try to snap a 0-for-13 record the Great American Race today.
“It’s not going to be a good feeling if you end your career and you don’t win Daytona,” Stewart says. “Everybody wants to win that biggest race. I won’t say it’s not a complete career if you don’t win it, but there’s a lot of priority on this.
“Darrell Waltrip and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. both had to go a long time before they got it.”
Stewart is hardly alone. The driver he edged for last year’s series championship, Carl Edwards, is winless in seven Daytona 500 starts (and 14 overall at the superspeedway).
Mark Martin, 53, a winner of 40 Cup races, has been trying to master Daytona since 1982 but is winless there in 53 Cup starts, including 27 Daytona 500s.
Martin came close in 2007, edged out in a dash to the finish by Kevin Harvick.
“I have not lost one ounce of sleep over not winning (the Daytona 500) other than the disappointment of being within three feet of it in ’07,” Martin says. “I’ve always said, you don’t get to choose the races you win. If you’re lucky enough, you just get to win some.”
But there’s no substitute for the joy of a 500 victory.
“When you’re standing in victory lane and see that Harley J. Earl Trophy and the list of people you’ve put yourself on there with, it’s something pretty special,” Harvick says. “This is our sport’s biggest race. Everybody puts their biggest effort into this race because you have the most time (to prepare). It has the most hype, pays the most money, has the most prestigious trophy. There’s nothing about the race that’s not the biggest or most prestigious.”
Yet the nature of Daytona can also make it so elusive.
A multitude of factors — not the least of which is racing luck — make winning the 500 difficult. That it’s run with restrictor plates, which choke down horsepower to keep speeds in check, levels the playing field between teams, big and small.
Waltrip raced 17 seasons before posting what would be his only Daytona 500 win in 1989.
It wasn’t until Earnhardt’s 20th 500 in 1998, when he edged Bobby Labonte, that he won NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
Winless in 38 Cup starts at Daytona, Labonte is still trying to win the 500. It would give him bragging rights against brother Terry, winless in 57 Cup races at Daytona.
“I’ve won at Darlington, Charlotte, the Brickyard — and those are big events,” Bobby Labonte says. “This one has slipped by a few times. If you had the vase and the genie came out and said, ‘You’re going to win one more race in your career. What’s it going to be?’ This would be the one you’d want to win.”
Clint Bowyer, 0-for-6 in the Daytona 500, isn’t sure what time he’d wake up the next day if he ever won it.
“They’d better lock me to the grandstand in victory lane, because they may not find me for those Monday morning interviews in New York,” he says.
Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, is winless in 11 tries but has been a runner-up three times.
“It’s the race that can define a driver’s career,” says Busch, who could make a splash for his new team, Phoenix Racing, with a win. “It’s a priority (because of) the prestigious value and what it can do long-term and the immediate impact. Like the Super Bowl, this race is our spectacle.
“In 2005, I looked in my mirror and saw everyone going by me to the inside. I said I just have to block to the inside and take a second-place finish. It eats at me that I (didn’t take) that risk to go to the high side and see what could have happened off Turn 4.”