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Daytona 500 Delays May Have Bummed Live Audience, But It Was A Boom For TV Viewers

Television viewership of this year's Daytona 500 jumped by over 20 percent over a year ago, partially due to the weather delays that pushed NASCAR's biggest race to Monday night in primetime.

Getty Images for NASCAR

When a major sporting event - or any sporting event, for that matter - gets delayed or postponed by weather or some other natural uncontrollable cause, rarely does something good come out of it. The last thing you want as a promoter, venue official, team owner, participant and, especially, a ticket-carrying fan is to have a sporting event delayed well beyond its scheduled start time. The lengthier the delay, the more problematic the situation becomes for everyone involved.

You can imagine, then, what NASCAR officials must have been feeling about having to delay the start of their marquee event of the year, the Daytona 500, the season-opener for NASCAR's premier racing level, the Sprint Cup Series, by almost 36 hours.

As it turned out, everyone's worst fears ended up being a blessing in disguise. Having said that, though, I feel confident that the outcome had nothing to do with the adage, "Good things happen to those who wait."

The primetime race coverage of this year's Daytona 500 drew the highest audience rating on a Monday night for Fox since game five of the 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. Approximately 36.5 viewers watched all or part of the race coverage, a 22 percent increase from the 30 million who watched the race in its regularly schedules Sunday time slot last year.

Because of continuing bands of rain showers across north central Florida and tracking eastward over Daytona, NASCAR was unable to get the event long called the Great American Race started on time at midday on Sunday. Officials waited until late Sunday afternoon to call the race and reschedule the event for noon eastern time on Monday.

This marked the first time in 54 years the Daytona 500, NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, had to be pushed back a day for any reason. With rain still in the area around midday on Monday, however, it was later decided to push back the start time to 6 p.m. Monday night. The Fox TV network agreed to live up to its commitment to carry the race live, so the event was set for its first primetime TV audience to go along with the first time the Daytona 500 had been postponed for over 24 hours.

When you stop to think about it, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is scheduled for the weekend, most often on Sunday afternoon, for a specific reason. That is the best time to attract fan attendance and also is an ideal time for both die-hard and casual motor- racing fans, mostly of the male gender, to view the event on television. When delays or a postponement occurs, interest in the event wanes and you run the high risk of losing large numbers of your prime target audience.

Although a primetime weeknight TV audience is considered peak viewing time by the television networks, this was not necessarily believed to be the case for a NASCAR event. This may be NASCAR's Super Bowl, but it's not the Super Bowl, or even the World Series or NBA Finals. NASCAR had no idea what to expect, even though the TV advertisers for the event must have been thrilled to receive a prime-time viewing audience for weekend daytime rates.

The Daytona 500 probably is a special case. It will be interesting to see how NASCAR elects to handle future races on the schedule facing similar prolonged weather delays. I wouldn't look for the same response or the same results.

NASCAR president Mark Helton partially answered that question after this year's Daytona 500 finally ended with a victory for Matt Kenseth a little after 1 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.

"We're very grateful for all the fans that stuck it out here, and stuck with us back home through the red flag (huge fire caused by the collision of Juan Montoya's car with a jet dryer carrying 200 gallons of fuel during a caution three-quarters through the race) and through the weather incident," Helton said. "As we go forward and we put out schedules together, the primary interest is weekends, because that's what we do. But (this year's race) unfortunately gave us a sample to look at for down the road."

As for a final word - or words - on the longest and arguably most bizarre Daytona 500 in the 54-year history of the prestige event, let's leave it at "all's well that ends well."