DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Want to capture the nation’s attention? Try a giant fire.
It certainly worked for NASCAR, which salvaged its marquee event despite the first ever rainout in 54 runnings of The Great American Race.
The first prime time Daytona 500 in NASCAR history was a win for Fox – its highest-rated Monday night audience since Game 5 of the 2010 World Series – with 36.5 million viewers, up 22 percent from 30 million last year.
And NASCAR surprisingly continued its momentum from last season, partly because of the freak crash in which Juan Pablo Montoya’s car hit a truck loaded with jet fuel, injuring no one but scorching the track and forcing a two-hour delay.
If there was any doubt NASCAR successfully reached a mainstream audience, sports talk radio personality Jim Rome dispelled it Tuesday afternoon when he said the race was more entertaining than any Monday night NFL game last season.
Rome was particularly fascinated by track workers using laundry detergent to clean up the fuel fire.
“Dudes needed to hit that track with some Tide, make it smell April-fresh,” he said on air. “We’re talking NASCAR, like it or not.”
Lost in all the non-racing storylines was a second Daytona 500 title for Matt Kenseth, who held off Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle in a two-lap overtime finish.
Overall, the prime time showcase was a win for everyone in NASCAR.
Though NASCAR president Mike Helton was unsure if the sport will consider weeknight racing going forward.
“We did this one to get this one done. It wasn’t scheduled originally to be this way,” he said. “… As we go forward and we put our schedules together, the primary interest is weekends, because that’s what we do. But (the race) unfortunately gave us a sample to look at, I guess, for down the road.”