Neither rain nor fire ruined NASCAR's marquee show

February 28, 2012 - 6:57 PM
NASCAR Daytona 500 Auto Racing

Emergency workers try to put out a fire on a jet dryer during the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Bill Friel)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Want to capture the nation's attention? Try a giant fireball.

It certainly worked for NASCAR, which salvaged its marquee event despite the first ever rainout in 54 runnings of The Great American Race.

The first primetime Daytona 500 in NASCAR history was a win for Fox — its highest-rated Monday night audience since Game 5 of the 2010 World Series — with 36.5 million viewers, up 22 percent from 30 million last year.

And NASCAR surprisingly continued its momentum from last season, partly because of the freak crash in which Juan Pablo Montoya's car hit a truck loaded with jet fuel, injuring no one but scorching the track and forcing a two-hour delay.

If there was any doubt NASCAR successfully reached a mainstream audience, sports talk radio personality Jim Rome dispelled it Tuesday afternoon when he said the race was more entertaining than any Monday night NFL game last season.

Rome was particularly fascinated by track workers using laundry detergent to clean up the fuel fire.

"Dudes needed to hit that track with some Tide, make it smell April-fresh," Rome said on air. "We're talking NASCAR, like it or not."

Things certainly didn't seem to be headed toward a successful show on Sunday when a steady rain at Daytona International Speedway washed out NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl.

"NASCAR just can't catch a break," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "We're trying to deliver, and we just have some unfortunate things happen such as the rain delay, potholes in the track a couple of years ago. We're a good sport, and we're trying to give a good product."

Lost in all the non-racing storylines was a second Daytona 500 title for Matt Kenseth, who held off Earnhardt and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle over a two-lap overtime finish in a race that was scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon but ended in the early morning hours Tuesday.

But it was driver Brad Keselowski who stole the spotlight — after he grabbed it with both thumbs.

NASCAR is an active social community, and its stars have been good about engaging with fans. But Keselowski took it to another level with his live tweeting, which was featured prominently in the telecast and kept fans informed during the stoppage.

He started the race with roughly 65,000 followers and his phone in his race car, intent on finding an opportunity to use it.

It came during the fire, when he was able to tweet pictures, answer fans and entertain the drivers surrounding him and his phone as they waited on the backstretch during the delay. By the time the drivers got back into their cars, Keselowski's followers had swollen to more than 200,000. It earned Keselowski a prime spot Tuesday on CNN.com's Tech page and had the sports world abuzz about NASCAR's use of social media.

He downplayed his social media savvy after the race, which ended for Keselowski in a late accident that he tweeted about minutes after the crash. Asked how many followers he gained during the race, he said, "a lot, but you know, I'll take the win first."

Actually, it was a win for everyone in NASCAR.

Though NASCAR president Mike Helton was unsure if the sport will consider weeknight racing going forward.

"We did this one to get this one done. It wasn't scheduled originally to be this way," he said. "Fox certainly participated in a very professional manner helping us get the coverage of the Daytona 500 that everybody wanted. We're very grateful for all the fans that stuck it out here, and stuck with us back home through the red flag and through the weather incident.

"As we go forward and we put our schedules together, the primary interest is weekends, because that's what we do. But (the race) unfortunately gave us a sample to look at, I guess, for down the road."

Certainly, Monday night races have found a fan in Kenseth.

He moved to the lead when racing resumed after the fire. An obscure group of drivers led by journeyman Dave Blaney had moved to the front during what should have been a routine caution period. Those top-five drivers would have pitted under yellow, but something broke on Montoya's car and sent him slamming into a safety truck, that burst into flames.

Had the track been badly damaged or had the rain resumed with any force, Blaney might have gone to Victory Lane for the first time in 398 Sprint Cup races.

Everything held up for NASCAR, though, and the event became the third of the weekend to go into overtime. Kenseth took over the lead when the drivers in front of him made their needed stops, and he worked with Biffle to hold off Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and the trio of Richard Childress Racing drivers. Earnhardt and Hamlin tried in vain to work out a strategy that would split up the two Fords out front, but nothing seemed to work.

And as the race rolled into a final two-lap sprint to the finish, Earnhardt was stuck behind Biffle until he made one final last-gasp attempt at the win. He pulled out of line, but it was too late to mount a charge on Kenseth, who crossed the finish line easily in front.

Earnhardt settled for second, his losing streak moved to 130 races, and Biffle wound up third and forced to defend his final strategy. Many fans angrily accused Biffle of blocking Earnhardt in defense of his teammate and not racing hard for the victory.

As the talk carried into Tuesday, Biffle finally took to Twitter to defend himself.

"I have never met a driver that wanted to finish 2nd!!" he posted. "2nd is the 1st loser and so are the people who think I touched the brakes last 2 laps."