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On its biggest day, NASCAR puts on The Great American Disgrace

DAYTONA BEACH — When the race was finally finished, the winner was in tears. And if they had any sense, so were NASCAR's bosses.

On the day a sport was hoping to reinvigorate and reconnect with its fans, the Daytona 500 ended up in a pothole on Sunday. And no amount of last-minute restarts could save the Great American Race from dissolving into a Minor American Disgrace.

Maybe it wasn't NASCAR's fault. Maybe it wasn't even the fault of the folks in charge of the pavement at Daytona International Speedway. Maybe this was just a bad break, much like last year's rainstorm that ended the race under an umbrella instead of a checkered flag.

But, regardless of whether there are fingers to be pointed, the result is still the same. A race that was supposed to be NASCAR's marquee event on its premier track turned into a huge disappointment. And a series eager to hang on to fans and sponsors went into the wall again.

"We're the world's center of racing. This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen. And I take full responsibility," track president Robin Braig said. "I apologize for it. This is hallowed ground, and we understand that. We accept responsibility."

A pothole that showed up between Turns 1 and 2 in the final 80 laps of the race caused two delays that lengthened the race by nearly 21/2 hours. So it eventually took better than six hours to cover 500 miles, which made the race feel more like a drive down I-4.

The first delay was bad. The second was worse. It went from being an annoying fluke to a question of competence. This is the Super Bowl of stock car racing, and it was looking like a county road crew on a bad day.

NASCAR officials had legitimate explanations. The dramatic shifts in weather from rain to cold to sunshine and back to cold this weekend made it hard to find a compound that would hold. And, though the track has not been repaved since 1978, it is inspected before every race.

But that didn't matter to fans squirming in their seats. Or television viewers with remote controls in their hands. All they knew is that an industry that depends on cutting-edge technology had been red flagged by a common pothole. Twice.

Gentlemen, shut off your engines. And your TV ratings.

"Obviously there's been a lot of talk about TV ratings. One thing we continue to be incredibly proud about is that NASCAR continues to be the No. 2 sport on television. That hasn't changed. That's a tribute to both our racing and our fans," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "With regard to what happened today, obviously it's not good for the fans. It's not what you would rather have. But anyone who's been a fan of racing very long has sat through rain delays and other things like this."

The irony is this was supposed to be a return to roots. Real stock car racing with the glossy veneer of recent years scraped off. The cars were going to be faster, the boys were going to be rubbing and bumping, and the NASCAR bosses were going to look the other way.

After years of restricting drivers and cars, racing officials were finally giving the sport back to fans. Instead of talking about restrictor plates and infractions, the Daytona 500 was going to resemble the shootouts of the 1970s.

Except it didn't really work out that way. There were plenty of lead changes, but the racing wasn't all that wild. The stars were barely in contention until Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a late charge, and the track became the most noteworthy story.

"Y'all know how I feel about Daytona. It's a special place," Earnhardt said. "But the surface has some pretty big bumps. I like the grip. I like the lack of grip, whatever you want to call it. But coming through the tunnel, man, it's just hell trying to get through there. Especially when you're two or three wide.

"They should have repaved it several years ago. We'd have it all weathered and ready to go right now. It would be in good shape. But it will get there again one day."

In television promos this weekend, NASCAR tried to draw some not-so-subtle comparisons to the 1979 race that ended with a wreck and a brawl and helped introduce a brash sport to mainstream America. The inference was that NASCAR was ready to go rogue again.

The question today is whether this Daytona 500 will have the opposite impact. How much will a ridiculously long television broadcast alienate fans who had already come to distrust NASCAR management? And how many potential new fans were turned off?

The answers will not come overnight. The Daytona 500 might be stock car racing's biggest event, but there are 35 races to follow. NASCAR still has time to reconnect with old fans and woo some new ones. There will be other chances to win some hearts.

Heck, they may even get Danica Patrick to fix the next pothole.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

On its biggest day, NASCAR puts on The Great American Disgrace 02/14/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 14, 2010 11:05pm]

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