DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR's epic 2011 championship was decided under the lights at Homestead on Nov. 20, so it's only fitting that NASCAR's season-opening Daytona 500 be contested against the same backdrop.
Monday morning, NASCAR president Mike Helton announced that the 54th Daytona 500 would be pushed back to 7 p.m. ET after heavy rains postponed the race Sunday. It's the first time in the event's 54-year history that it has been postponed and the first time that it will run its entirety under the lights.
It was the right decision. Though done out of necessity, the move to prime time Monday looks like a stroke of genius, allowing NASCAR to showcase its premier event to an even greater audience.
With the track still wet at noon -- the original Monday start time -- NASCAR had two options: wait around and try to get the track dry enough to start sometime in the afternoon or make a gigantic leap of faith by moving it to a 7 p.m. start. The weather forecast indicated the rain would taper off by mid-afternoon, but NASCAR opted for the latter option, ensuring fans unable to watch a noon start could catch the race from home.
The change doesn't just help the fans. The drivers get a chance to retreat to their motorhomes, relax and take a nap so they can return to the garage area a few hours before the race and rethink their strategy. The crewmembers get to return to the transporter and recharge, which is particularly key for the "Over the Wall Gang" that actually services the race car during pit stops.
"I think it's good for the sport to race at night -- Monday night, prime time -- and it's a great opportunity for NASCAR," said Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski.
A prime-time Daytona 500 could propel the sport forward in the same way the famed 1979 Daytona 500 did. With much of the U.S. snowed in during the Great Blizzard of 1979 and CBS televising the race live in its entirety for the first time, many non-NASCAR fans sat down and watched the Great American Race. And what a race it was. Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashed while battling for the lead down the stretch, allowing Richard Petty to win his sixth of seven career Daytona 500s. After the race, fans were treated to further excitement when Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison took their battle outside the car with a fist-fight at the scene of the crash.
To this day, the 1979 Daytona 500 is credited with launching NASCAR into the mainstream.
Thirty-three years later, NASCAR has a chance to elevate the Daytona 500 once again.
"It's going to be a great race," said Carl Edwards, who will lead the field to the pole when the green flag waves at 7:02 p.m.
"I don't really think it will change the racing that much but it's sure going to be exciting to watch," said Mark Martin, the only driver in the field who actually lives in Daytona Beach, specifically the Spruce Creek area.
There will be some notable differences under the lights. The track surface will have plenty of grip in the cooler conditions (temperatures are expected to be in the high 60s), so expect to see racing as fast and fearless as it was during the Feb. 18 Budweiser Shootout. The track should also be consistently fast. Even with a new track surface at Daytona, had they run during the day the surface would have changed throughout the race as the temperature and angle of the sun changed.
With extra grip on the track, look for the field of drivers to use practically the entire racing surface at Daytona. It could lead to some bold three-wide moves late in the race, which, as we saw during the Nationwide race on Saturday, could make it a free-for-all coming down the stretch. Trevor Bayne triggered a massive crash when he was pinched into the wall on Saturday, taking out the front of the field and allowing unheralded James Buescher to claim Victory Lane. A similar scenario could occur on Monday night.
Because of the late start, expect the drivers to run fast and clean in order to keep it green for the early part of the race. Many of these teams expected to be home Monday night instead of competing in the Daytona 500; with the demands of getting back to the race shops in North Carolina, unloading the Daytona car and preparing for the upcoming week's race, the pressure is on to finish this race tonight. Teams have to haul across the country to be in Phoenix late Thursday for practice starting Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway.
Running this race in prime time will add tremendous drama to an event already filled with tension. In the world of sports, there is nothing more dramatic than seeing the biggest events of the year contested under the lights.
And considering this Daytona 500 is Danica Patrick's coming out party, it's fitting that the spotlight will be shining -- not only on her, but on all the stars of NASCAR.