As NASCAR and "thousands of fans waited and watched into Sunday night, weather was the only winner at the Daytona 500," according to Mike Hembree in a special to USA TODAY. Rain and "severe weather warnings stopped" the race after just 38 laps, and "things got worse from there." The race "endured its longest single-day rain delay at 6 hours, 21 minutes, 41 seconds," and "didn't resume" until 8:52pm ET. Two tornado warnings "were issued in Daytona Beach in the midafternoon, and the track instructed spectators in the grandstands to leave their seats and seek shelter" (USA TODAY, 2/24). In Jacksonville, Don Coble notes the track was "under a tornado warning for nearly an hour, with [the] electronic bulletin board urging fans to seek shelter in their cars." The threat was "so real, the American Red Cross told people to fasten their seat belts and turn on their engines during the storm so their air bags could deploy in a possible tornado." While the track was "crushed by rain and lightning, it escaped any other severe weather." Daytona Int'l Speedway officials said that "no fans were injured" (FLORIDA TIMES-UNION, 2/24). In Daytona Beach, Godwin Kelly notes an estimated 120,000 spectators "watched the start and about 90,000 returned" following the delay (Daytona Beach NEWS-JOURNAL, 2/24).
WORTH THE WAIT: In West Palm Beach, Dave George writes the Daytona 500 is "simply too big to fail, and so it is that NASCAR utterly exhausted itself Sunday bailing out a race that clearly was in trouble from the start." But the "payoff was worth every drop of rain and sweat" with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win. Until drivers can be "taught to slalom between raindrops, of course, there are going to be days like this" -- days that "leave even NASCAR's heartiest fans numb." To "get a finish like this, however, was worthy of the Super Bowl of stock car racing, and more suspenseful by far than that other Super Bowl" (PALM BEACH POST, 2/24).
WORK TO DO: In Orlando, Mike Bianchi writes Earnhardt's victory was a "fairy tale ending to the race; the problem is that the ending came 10 hours after the beginning." The "real winner" was Mother Nature. NASCAR officials "could have easily announced on Saturday that they were going to move up Sunday's 1:30 p.m. start time to try and get the race in and beat the storms" (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 2/24). In Jacksonville, Gene Frenette wrote for the "second time in three years, the Super Bowl of NASCAR turned into a rain-saturated waiting game." Frenette: "At least this time, there was no ball of fire or Tide detergent being sprinkled across the Daytona speedway track." But there "has to be a better way for the governing body of stock-car racing to avoid keeping its fan base in this kind of prolonged limbo." Nobody "expects NASCAR to be meteorologically perfect," but it is "inexcusable for spectators at Sunday’s Great American Race to be put through a six-hour rain delay, and still not knowing whether a green flag is coming to resume racing." No sporting event should "be a long day’s journey into late prime-time, even one where many spectators invest thousands of dollars in travel costs." TV networks "don’t like not having a live sporting event, but a delayed telecast on Sunday still beats a Monday finish." Frenette: "Isn’t it better to inconvenience fans by starting an hour or two early, as opposed to having people wander around the speedway or sitting in cars for hours to wait things out?" (JACKSONVILLE.com, 2/23). A Daytona Beach NEWS-JOURNAL editorial states some fans "will howl about the lengthy delay." However, going to all extents "to complete a race on the day it's scheduled ... is a consistency that should remain." The Daytona Rising renovation project "won't do a thing to remove Daytona from the mercy of the weatherman." But those "new concourses will give fans a neat place to kill time during future rain delays" (Daytona Beach NEWS-JOURNAL, 2/24).