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.
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.”