DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A line of 10 jet engine-sized dryers slowly navigated their way around Daytona International Speedway’s rain-slicked, 2.5-mile trioval, trying to blast moisture off the steep embankments. As it turned out, they were the only vehicles to turn laps on the track yesterday after the 54th running of the Daytona 500 was postponed by rain until noon today.
NASCAR officials were forced to push back their Sprint Cup season opener for the first time after a steady band of showers pelted the area and at first forced a delay of the scheduled 1:29 p.m. start.
The rain hampered repeated efforts to dry the track and officials finally postponed the race shortly after 5:15 p.m. when a large storm cell unleashed another downpour.
“We attempted our best to get the track dry, and it seemed like every time we got close, another pocket of rain showed up,’’ said Joie Chitwood, Daytona’s track president. “We waited as long as we could in terms of the process, how long it might take to dry the track, and then what was reasonable in terms of our fans staying and enjoying the event.’’
When officials were faced with a diminishing window of opportunity to get the race started, Chitwood said it became apparent the Daytona 500 would have to be postponed.
Four times in its history, the 200-lap race has been rain-shortened. The last time was 2009 when Roush Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth won when it was called after 152 laps. Three other times it has been rain-disrupted, but never has it been rained out.
“I think that’s a pretty good record for NASCAR,’’ said Carl Edwards, who last week captured his first Daytona 500 pole.
Edwards will lead the field to the green flag when the command to start engines is called at 12:01 p.m.
“They’ve been living right to have 53 of these and never have one postponed,’’ said Edwards. “That’s pretty spectacular. We’ll come race tomorrow. I think everyone is really excited about this race. All the drivers I’ve spoken with, the fans, this is going to be a very good Daytona 500.
“I think NASCAR, they’re doing the right thing, not dragging this out. Everybody knows we’ll be racing tomorrow during the day. It will be a good event. Just hopefully the weather will hold off and we won’t be in this same position again.’’
The forecast for today isn’t much better, with a 70 percent chance of rain, with the highest amount expected late morning through the afternoon.
“I think the plan with a noon start, I think there is inclement weather in the a.m., but by noon it looks like the weather is better,’’ Chitwood said. “We’ll play it out the best we can. No different than what we did today. We’ll wait till the last possible minute that we would not run the race. We want to exhaust every opportunity of getting the track dry and running the race.’’
If rain persists today, Chitwood said he would likely wait until 5 or 6 p.m. until making a decision on possibly postponing the race until tomorrow.
“I don’t even want to talk about Tuesday,’’ he said.
The rain forced many drivers to retreat to their sanctuaries in the infield motorcoach lot, waiting for word when they could get ready to race. But it never came.
“It was kind of weird today, because we kind of saw the weather,’’ said Bobby Labonte, who is competing in his 20th consecutive 500. “I didn’t know when to eat, I didn’t know when to rest, I didn’t know when to do whatever.’’
Labonte wasn’t alone in his anxiety.
“I think every driver that does this, they’re ready as well,’’ he said. “We just have a ritual we go through [to prepare]. Whether it was going to be raining for another hour, or an hour less, we’ll always be ready. Not a whole lot we can do about the weather.
“When you get in the racecar, everything else goes away, and you’re just ready to go.’’
Track officials tried to get all the prerace activities completed before the rains came.
“Actually, I sat there during prerace on one of the stages looking around and still felt good about some of the things we saw,’’ Chitwood said. “The Lenny Kravitz concert, Pat Monahan [of the group Train] singing the [national] anthem, the fly-over [by the US Air Force Thunderbirds] was tremendous.
“It was great to see all those elements. And then not to have a great race to accompany it, it is deflating. We’ve got to make sure [today] we do a good job and give our fans what they expect, which is a great Daytona 500.’’