Daytona 500's blazing start gives NASCAR hopes for red-hot season

The Daytona 500 still has racing veterans shaking their heads, thanks to 36 hours of a rain delay that prompted the race to start in prime time on Monday night and then featured a freak accident that left a fuel spill burning on the track.

"It was amazing. We have never seen anything like that," driver Aric Almirola said.

And to think, that was only the first race of the year.

The Sprint Cup series is only getting started. The next stop is Sunday in Phoenix, then it's on to Las Vegas. In six weeks, the series will be in Fort Worth for the Mobile Samsung 500, a Saturday night race that will be the next time the cars run under the lights.

"Everybody goes to Daytona thinking about the big prize, which is the trophy," driver Kurt Busch said.

But now everybody is racing for position, looking for one of the 12 "playoff" spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In the minds of many of the drivers, the 36-race grind to the week before Thanksgiving actually begins now.

"You want to have the win at Daytona and then you just deal with the points, no matter where you end up," Busch said. "Phoenix is the first race of the year where you are into a regular sequence of Friday practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday race."

Sunday's 500K race in Phoenix has a chance to have more first-time NASCAR viewers, thanks to the attention the sport got Monday night.

Juan Pablo Montoya's slide into a dryer containing 200 gallons of jet fuel caused an explosion that left the track on fire. The result was a two-hour delay that left track workers scrambling to make repairs.

They put out the fire, lifted the dryer and its truck off the track, scrubbed the residue with Tide -- giving Fox's national television audience a nice tight shot of the familiar orange and yellow logo on the detergent boxes sitting on the track -- then patched up the asphalt.

"It was really just a lot of speedy dry and whatever they washed it with and one little bump," driver Kevin Harvick said. "They did a good job fixing it. You couldn't even tell."

For NASCAR's first weeknight prime time Sprint Cup race, the combination of buildup, racing accidents, explosions and night-owl finish could not have bought more publicity.

"When you watch all the movies and stuff blows up and people run into cars, I always thought that was just Hollywood. But I guess it's not," race winner Matt Kenseth said. "I guess stuff does blow up when you run into something hot with 200 gallons of fuel in it."

For some drivers, it was a chance to introduce themselves to a new audience.

Brad Keselowski took advantage of it with his cellphone. He tweeted pictures of the fire and gained more than 100,000 followers in the hours after the accident.

He wasn't the only one tweeting. Users across the country chipped in: "First-time NASCAR viewers, this is not normal." "First driver to Phoenix wins." "At least Bud Selig doesn't make third base blow up in flames!" "Check Montoya's phone. Was he texting?"

Nobody expected Keselowski, 28, to have his cellphone with him.

It even caught NASCAR by surprise. The rules don't say anything about a cellphone in the car during competition or tweeting or anything like that.

NASCAR issued a statement: "NASCAR will not penalize Brad Keselowski for his use of Twitter during last night's Daytona 500. Nothing we've seen from Keselowski violates any current rules pertaining to the use of social media during races. As such, he won't be penalized. We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others."

The race left the Sprint Cup standings in a mess, too.

Four "Chase" drivers from last year were 27th or worse. Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was 42nd, and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon was 40th. They had never been 40th or worse in the same race.

"I'm just really, really bummed to start the season this way," Johnson said. " ... we didn't get to complete 2 1/2 miles of green flag racing."Things got worse for Johnson's team Wednesday. A 25-point NASCAR penalty after a failed inspection Feb. 17 dropped him to 43rd, pending an appeal.

Jumbled standings. Tweets. Fire.

And to think, the season is one race old.

Carlos Mendez


Twitter @calexmendez

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