Storm clouds roll in over the Daytona International Speedway during a weather delay for the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto racing series qualifying, Saturday, July 4, 2015, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux
July 04, 2015

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) For 29 years, the summer race at Daytona International Speedway was a part of the nation's birthday.

The event was always run on Independence Day, no matter what day of the week. The race was in the morning, and the drivers and their families were celebrating on the beach by late afternoon.

The tradition that began in 1959 ended in 1988 when the event was moved into prime time on whatever Saturday was part of the holiday weekend. Now it has been moved once more, to Sunday night, to accommodate the return of NASCAR to NBC.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, said the change was simply about audience.

''The Fourth of July is annually the lowest night of television watching of the year - fewer people watch TV that night because they are all out watching fireworks,'' Lazarus told The Associated Press on Saturday.

''In order for us to start our relationship with as big a splash as we can, we wanted to give ourselves the best chance and opportunity to have a big audience. It was simply math.''

The switch still comes with challenges. By moving it to Sunday night, the race now goes head-to-head against the United States playing in the Women's World Cup final. NBC's pre-race show begins at the same time as the game, but the race doesn't actually go green for another 78 minutes.

Lazarus anticipates, barring overtime and penalty kicks, only about 35 minutes of direct competition. He is hopeful, though, that World Cup viewers will flip to the NASCAR race when the game ends.

''It's a mixed blessing - it will bring a lot of different people to the television set,'' he said. ''We're hopeful, if we continue to market, that we'll get some people who wouldn't be home watching TV to transfer over and check us out.''

Although both NASCAR and Daytona officials signed off on the switch to Sunday, it's not the most ideal situation for track President Joie Chitwood.

Running the race a day later hurts attendance because campers usually return home on Sunday, and now the World Cup likely will cut into viewership. Chitwood understood NBC's desire for the Sunday night race, but is thankful the race will return to Saturday night in 2016.

''In our conversation with them, it was just the one time,'' he said. ''We all talked about what we could do special for NBC, and this was one of their components, and it made a lot of sense when we sat down and really talked about it. When you look at what they've done with `Football Night in America,' they are just knocking it out of the part. They've really captured that.

''Hopefully, they can sprinkle a little bit of that magic on this event this Sunday. I don't think anybody a year ago, though, knew about World Cup soccer, so that's the way the breaks are.''

NBC will shift into a regular routine after this debut race, with the network holding the rights to the final 20 events of the season. The network carried NASCAR races from 2001 through 2006, but its rights went to ESPN after that season.

The network bought back the rights two years ago and has been waiting patiently to add the product to its sports programming. Many of the races will be aired on the cable channel NBC Sports Network, which already airs IndyCar and Formula One.

''We're going to have 1,400 hours of racing this year, we are going to crown champions in all three series,'' Lazarus said. ''I think we are becoming a destination for motorsports - a niche our competitors left when they changed their business model.''

NBC is using a booth that is new to NASCAR. The network pulled play-by-play announcer Rick Allen away from Fox Sports, and for analysts signed former driver Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who gave up his job as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. for TV work.

''The fact they come right out of the garage to us brings a freshness and a familiarity,'' Lazarus said.

He understands NASCAR fans may face some challenges trying to find coverage as NBCSN is still a growing network. But Lazarus said the channel is currently in about 85 million homes, is continuing to grow, and the addition of NASCAR will help in negotiations with cable operators.

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