With night falling on Daytona International Speedway on Monday, Feb. 27—after a dispiriting 30-hour rain delay—the outlook for NASCAR and its signature event, the Daytona 500, seemed bleak. But then everything blew up (figuratively, literally and Twitter-ly). A six-hour spectacle replete with electrifying, crash-filled racing, Danica drama, a jet-fuel fireball, behind-the-wheel tweeting and a thrilling finish, all kicking off in prime time, left people across the country who had never paid attention to racing saying, "Wow, what the heck was that?!"
What that was, in fact, was NASCAR at its best, and it could portend a special season on the stock car circuit. Even the day before the 500, reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart had sensed that NASCAR—which, since hitting a high-water mark in the nation's sporting consciousness in 2004, has experienced falling attendance and flagging TV ratings for several years—was on the rebound. "The racing is better, the competition is as intense as it's ever been, and fans are coming back," said Stewart. "I've got a hunch that this is going to be one hell of a season."
Stewart's intuition appears spot on. Part of the reason the action was so compelling at Daytona was that NASCAR—to its credit—listened to fans and drivers, who had complained about the boring tandem-style drafting that dominated the 2011 race. To ensure it wouldn't happen this year, officials tinkered with the grille and radiator of the cars, so the engines would begin to overheat after only half a lap of pairs racing. This brought back Daytona's traditional pack racing and—not incidentally—its traditional big wrecks. By the end of the Great American Race, which was won by Matt Kenseth, 24 of the 43 cars had been involved in crashes.
But NASCAR also got lucky on Feb. 27. Because of rain, the sport's marquee event was pushed back to Monday night, and the prime-time slot produced the most-watched Cup race ever on Fox. Plus, racing has always looked better under the lights, with sparks flying every time a car loses control. Speaking of sparks, what made that prime-time telecast unforgettable was Juan Pablo Montoya's plowing into a safety truck laden with 200 gallons of jet fuel (to power its track dryer), triggering the scariest explosion in NASCAR history. The incident (in which no one was hurt) was comparable to the 1979 fight at Daytona between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers in that the next morning the race was water-cooler talk across America, a rarity for NASCAR. Now NASCAR needs to capitalize on its good fortune by acting boldly and scheduling Monday-night races in 2013.
"Moving the race to a Monday night could be the greatest thing that ever happened to NASCAR," says Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, "because you had people paying attention that normally wouldn't have. It was historic."
NASCAR also handled the issue of drivers' tweeting just right. During the two-hour delay caused by the fire, Brad Keselowski tweeted photos and thoughts on his iPhone—picking up more than 130,000 followers in the process. Though NASCAR rules forbid drivers from having any recording device for competition purposes in the cockpit, the sanctioning body had no issue with Keselowski's postings and last week essentially told drivers that tweeting would be allowed under a red flag—an example of how NASCAR is embracing social media.
Then there's the Danica factor. This year Danica Patrick moved from IndyCar to NASCAR, driving full time in the Nationwide Series and making 10 Cup starts. How important is Patrick, who won the pole for the Feb. 25 Nationwide event at Daytona? That race, broadcast on ESPN, garnered the highest cable TV rating in series history. Even though she crashed on the second lap of the 500, Patrick is already established as NASCAR's second-most-important driver.
Who's the first? That would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted the sport's most popular driver nine straight years. Flashing renewed confidence at Daytona, he finished second in the 500. Earnhardt hasn't won a race since June 2008, but he's relevant again this season and appears primed to make a run at his first Cup title, which is something for which NASCAR executives have long been privately pining.
We've completed only the opening laps of the 2012 season, but with a Daytona for the ages, Junior back in the lead pack, a woman banging fenders in the Nationwide Series and the overall quality of racing as high as it's been in years, NASCAR is at full throttle. This could be the sport's best season—if, that is, NASCAR learns from its luck and remains open to change. At least on Sunday at a packed and sun-soaked Phoenix International Raceway, which sold several thousand tickets in the days following Daytona, it felt like 2004 again.