Commentary

First 500 postponement historic

Updated: February 27, 2012, 2:56 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- What we long called Big Bill France's deal with God expired Sunday.

For the first time in the 54-year history of NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500 was rained out entirely and ultimately postponed until Monday at 7 p.m. ET, with TV coverage on Fox.

And Monday's forecast isn't much better, with at least a 60 percent chance of rain.

The 500 had been rain-shortened four times over the years, and delayed on three other occasions. But never before had there been an outright rainout.

[+] EnlargeJet dryers
Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCARIt was Mother Nature 1, Jet Dryers 0 on Sunday at Daytona.

"Bill France weather," we called it, down through decades of Februaries when the Daytona 500 seemed the only motor race in America immune to rainouts. The rival Indianapolis 500 had seen multiple weather ordeals in the month of May.

We joked that France, the founder of both NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway, had made a deal with God the way he made deals with everybody else.

But we ignored France's biggest ally in scheduling his early races here -- he consulted the Farmers' Almanac. That made for a nearly perfect record of running this race.

Some longtime fans might think NASCAR went into breach of contract with the elements this time by pushing the date back a week due to increasing concerns that the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl will eventually encroach into mid-February.

In recent decades the race had always been scheduled the Sunday before Presidents Day -- the holiday giving officials a built-in rain date if they needed it.

But in fact, the third Sunday in February had been traditional only since 1970. In six of nine years leading up to that, the race was run on the last Sunday of the month.

In that span, of the three 500s that were run Presidents Day weekend, rain shortened the '65 race to 133 of the standard 200 laps, and Fred Lorenzen won while sitting on the pit road under a red flag. So the Presidents Day weekend wasn't always waterproof.

But by the way, last Sunday was windy but clear here.

Lorenzen's rain victory stood as the shortest Daytona 500 until 2003, when there were two red flags for rain until Michael Waltrip was declared the winner with only 109 laps completed.

Matt Kenseth's 2009 win was declared when the bottom fell out of the Central Florida skies after only 152 laps.

The only other time the race was rain-shortened was in 1966, but Richard Petty's win came with 198 of the 200 laps complete.

In my memory, the gloomiest the skies had looked here before Sunday was in 1979, when it rained most of the morning. Because CBS was on the air with the first start-to-finish live coverage of the race, the first 16 laps were run under caution, so that the race cars themselves completed the drying of the track.

But that day went on to unfold as a full race, one of the most memorable in NASCAR history, one Bill France Jr., the second czar of NASCAR, often said was his league's version of the NFL's milestone, the 1958 New York Giants-Baltimore Colts championship game.

From Georgia north that day, most of the nation was snowed in. TV ratings soared as the race went on, and then Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough wrecked each other while dueling for the win.

[+] EnlargeBobby Allison and Cale Yarborough
AP Photo/Ric FeldDonnie Allison, left, led Cale Yarborough, right, on the final lap in 1979, but they crashed. Bobby Allison was driving over to pick brother Donnie up when some of NASCAR's biggest fireworks occurred on what had started as a dreary day.

Petty and Darrell Waltrip maneuvered through the third-turn melee and had a second duel of their own -- at the time it was perfectly legal to race back to the caution flag. Petty held off Waltrip for the sixth of Petty's seven Daytona 500 wins.

Meanwhile, over in the third turn, Bobby Allison parked his car with intentions of offering his younger brother a ride, but of course he ended up getting into the now-notorious fight with Yarborough. Donnie never actually threw a punch, but has always been implicated in the notorious photos of the scuffle.

Other minor rain delays over the years included 1963, when the first 10 laps were run under caution, and 1992, when laps 84-89 were run under caution due to backstretch drizzle.

Watching the drizzle Sunday morning, I thought of '79 and how hopeless the situation had seemed that morning, and what a spectacular event had ensued. Maybe, I kept hoping, this gloom foreshadowed another lollapalooza.

But the rain and fog were so relentless that only once, late Sunday afternoon, did the jet dryers even get onto the track.

As the hours wore on, I thought of Big Bill's deal and how it seemed to be expiring. I decided maybe the pact was good for his lifetime plus 20 years. Big Bill died in 1992.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.