DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR's marquee event and one of racing's most highly anticipated debuts will have to wait.
Steady showers on Sunday postponed the 54th Daytona 500 by a day for the first time in race history. The season opener — and the Sprint Cup debut of former IndyCar star Danica Patrick — is scheduled to start at noon today and will be televised on Fox (Ch. 13).
But the radar doesn't look much better. The National Weather Service forecasts a 70 percent chance of rain with a possible thunderstorm today.
"Awesome," pole-sitter Carl Edwards said sarcastically.
Weather has shortened the Great American Race four times, including in 2003 when Michael Waltrip won and in Matt Kenseth's 2009 victory. NASCAR also started the race under yellow because of rain in 1963 and 1979.
But the elements had never postponed its start or pushed its finish back a day.
"I didn't know when to eat," said veteran driver Bobby Labonte, who kept his racing gear on all day in case the skies cleared. "I didn't know when to rest. I didn't know when to do whatever."
Mist hung over the 2½-mile tri-oval in the morning as fans streamed in, and rain fell at 1:29 p.m. when WWE wrestler John Cena was scheduled to wave the green flag. Drivers stood under umbrellas with their teams, and black covers blanketed their cars on pit road.
As the afternoon wore on and drivers disappeared to their trailers, the only action near the track came from seagulls waddling through infield puddles and poncho-clad fans buzzing under the grandstands.
"It's like watching paint dry because you look out the window and it's still raining," said Greg Biffle, who will start the race on the outside of Row 1.
Racers and crews passed the time in different ways. Patrick darted between media and sponsor obligations. Last year's winner, Trevor Bayne, wore a flannel shirt as a guest analyst on Fox.
Mark Martin napped. A member of Jimmie Johnson's crew watched highlights of the NFL combine. Edwards watched professional bowling on TV.
"I got into that a little bit," Edwards said.
Showers let up around 3:30, and 10 trucks equipped with powerful jet dryers circled the track for an hour and a half to try to dry the superspeedway. But when sprinkles fell harder shortly after 5, the track grew damp again, and NASCAR parked those vehicles, too.
"A long day," track president and Tampa native Joie Chitwood III said. "We attempted our best to try to get the track dry. It seemed like every time we got close, a pocket of rain showed up."
NASCAR will honor Sunday's tickets today, and other tickets will be on sale at the gate or at the speedway's ticket office. If rain persists, Chitwood said officials likely will wait until early evening before thinking about postponing it again and exploring its next options.
"I don't even want to talk about Tuesday right now," Chitwood said.
Drivers and crews don't expect the rain to make any major changes to the track, but the delay will cause plenty of other problems. Logistical issues could arise because teams have less time to transport their equipment 2,200 miles to the next race in Phoenix, six days away.
And everyone must adjust mentally after being geared up for NASCAR's biggest race but leaving the track without circling it once.
"Now when you put that off for another day, for all of us, it's now who can really stay focused," Edwards said. "That's not just drivers. That's the pit crews, crew chiefs, everyone."
REPUBLICAN RACE: Two hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination had a presence Sunday. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addressed the crowd briefly about an hour before the race. One of his chief rivals, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, sponsored the No. 26 Ford of Tony Raines, which starts 41st.
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]