(Eds: Retransmits. With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
The Daytona 500 wasn’t just delayed. It was a flat-out disaster.
But if the folks at NASCAR are as smart as they think, they’ll chalk up the fiery explosion that made it an unbearably long night to bad luck, then forget about the storm clouds that postponed the start by a day – and look hard for a silver lining. Because that’s what Monday night’s race could turn out to be.
Sure, five-time circuit champion Jimmie Johnson was out after two laps, sidelined in the same wreck that reduced glamour girl Danica Patrick and defending champ Trevor Bayne to also-rans for the rest of the race. Even the last lap was anticlimactic. Matt Kenseth cruised comfortably to the win, in large part because his teammate Greg Biffle couldn’t do much with a late push from Dale Earnhardt Jr. By the time it ended, there were probably more fans left in the stands than still looking in on TV across the land.
For all that, though, ”Monday Night Racing” is an experiment that might be worth trying again.
NASCAR is still America’s No. 2 sport according to Forbes magazine, but it’s struggling just to hold its place and it’s always going to be stuck between a rock and the NFL. That’s one reason NASCAR czar Brian France has dipped into the NFL playbook for ideas in the past, and this one deserves a long look. Moving a regular-season race or two from a weekend slot to Monday night might be just the spark his sport needs to keep a still-fragile recovery on track.
France is smart enough to know the problem with building an empire is that sooner or later, you bump into someone else’s. So instead of competing head-to-head against pro football, baseball or basketball – NASCAR bumps up against all three at some point in its season – he’s bent over backward positioning his sport as a complementary package and squeezing his races into time slots dictated by his TV partners. The Daytona 500 might be NASCAR’s Super Bowl, but had it gone off as originally scheduled Sunday afternoon, it would have been a dimming memory for most sports fans by the time the Oscars and NBA All-Star game rolled around later that evening.
Complain all you want about the heavy rain that forced postponement of the race for the first time in its 54-year history – there was plenty of that – but having the stage to itself is an opportunity the sport should jump at. NASCAR already has a handful of evening starts sprinkled into the schedule, and the biggest obstacle to moving one or more of those to Monday night is that it would cut into preparation time for the next weekend’s race. Teams often stop off at their garages near NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., to swap or modify their cars, then load up the haulers before hitting the road again.
But during one stretch from late August through early September, the circuit has three night races in a row at Bristol, Tenn., Atlanta and Richmond, Va. All three tracks are within easy driving distance of Charlotte and close enough to keep delays to a minimum. And none of the three – in order, the ”Irwin Tools Night Race,” the ”AdvoCare 500,” and the ”Wonderful Pistachios 400” – would be sacrificing much in the way of tradition by moving to Monday night.
Besides, racing just looks better at night, and it’s a whole lot wilder, something that wouldn’t be wasted on the 18-34 demographic NASCAR is so desperately seeking. In 2007, for example, car parts, smoke and sparks flew through the air like the climactic chase scene from ”The Road Warrior” as Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin raced side by side at 200 mph separated by the length of a car hood. Seconds later, providing a perfect exclamation point, Clint Bowyer skidded across the line with his car upside down – and on fire.
The announcers that night, with decades of NASCAR experience among them, scoured their memory banks for a comparison. Finally, driver-turned-broadcaster Darrell Waltrip settled on the NASCAR-inspired hit comedy from a year earlier. ”It’s `Ricky Bobby,” he said. ”It couldn’t have been any better.”
This one could have, but it had nothing to do with the stage.
It’s been a turbulent few years, economically, for all pro sports and NASCAR might have been the hardest hit. Last year’s season delivered a 10 percent jump in TV ratings, but it came after a decline that saw the sport’s numbers slide by nearly a third from their peak in 2005. Attendance is sagging, sponsorships are harder to come by, more than a few skilled drivers are still struggling to find regular rides and at least one former big-time team finished the year living paycheck to paycheck before being sold for cheap.
But NASCAR isn’t going anywhere. It’s got two years left on an eight-year, $4.5 billion TV deal with Fox, TNT and ESPN that runs through 2014. But France is expected to begin talks on a new deal later this year and he’ll need more than luck just to get the $560 million NASCAR is bankrolling annually under the old one. He’s going to have to bring something new to the table and ”Monday Night Racing” might not be a bad place to start looking.
”We were talking about it on the back straightaway,” Earnhardt said afterward. ”When you’re in the car, you don’t think about what night it is, and you could just forget, really, to be honest.
”But whenever they want us to race,” he added, ”we’ll race.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke