DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Want to capture the nation's attention? Try a giant fireball.
It certainly worked for NASCAR, which salvaged its marquee event despite the first ever rainout in 54 runnings of The Great American Race.
The first primetime Daytona 500 in NASCAR history was a win for Fox — its highest-rated Monday night audience since Game 5 of the 2010 World Series — with 36.5 million viewers, up 22 percent from 30 million last year.
And NASCAR surprisingly continued its momentum from last season, partly because of the freak crash in which Juan Pablo Montoya's car hit a truck loaded with jet fuel, injuring no one but scorching the track and forcing a two-hour delay.
If there was any doubt NASCAR successfully reached a mainstream audience, sports talk radio personality Jim Rome dispelled it Tuesday afternoon when he said the race was more entertaining than any Monday night NFL game last season.
Rome was particularly fascinated by track workers using laundry detergent to clean up the fuel fire.
"Dudes needed to hit that track with some Tide, make it smell April-fresh," Rome said on air. "We're talking NASCAR, like it or not."
Lost in all the non-racing storylines was a second Daytona 500 title for Matt Kenseth, who held off Earnhardt and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle over a two-lap overtime finish in a race that was scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon but ended in the early morning hours Tuesday.
Kenseth moved to the lead when racing resumed after the fire. An obscure group of drivers led by journeyman Dave Blaney had moved to the front during what should have been a routine caution period. Those top-five drivers would have pitted under yellow, but something broke on Montoya's car and sent him slamming into a safety truck, that burst into flames.
Had the track been badly damaged or had the rain resumed with any force, Blaney might have gone to Victory Lane for the first time in 398 Sprint Cup races.
Everything held up for NASCAR, though, and the event became the third of the weekend to go into overtime. Kenseth took over the lead when the drivers in front of him made their needed stops, and he worked with Biffle to hold off Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and the trio of Richard Childress Racing drivers. Earnhardt and Hamlin tried in vain to work out a strategy that would split up the two Fords out front, but nothing seemed to work.
Earnhardt settled for second, his losing streak moved to 130 races.
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