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Originally published Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:30 PM

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NASCAR must dig out of hole | Auto-racing analysis

For all the insistence about being major league, NASCAR officials looked like rank amateurs in having to halt Sunday's Daytona 500 twice — for a total of 2 hours, 25 minutes — to patch a pothole at Daytona International Speedway.

The Washington Post

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Daytona 500 represents NASCAR's most important sales opportunity of the year. It is NASCAR's chance to convert the casual sports fan, who might not watch any other race all year, into a hard-core fan.

It is also a chance to prove stock-car racing is a major-league sport worthy of corporate America's investment and national media attention. And it is a chance for drivers to prove they are rare among professional athletes: ordinary men (and, increasingly, women) capable of doing extraordinary things.

Jamie McMurray closed his part of the deal Sunday, charging to the front with two laps to go and holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a hair-raising, 190 mph scramble to win the 52nd Daytona 500.

But NASCAR defaulted on its obligation.

For all the insistence about being major league, NASCAR officials looked like rank amateurs in having to halt what is billed as the Great American Race twice — for a total of 2 hours, 25 minutes — to patch a pothole at Daytona International Speedway.

And the delays put a major dent in television ratings, which dropped more than 17 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research — from a 9.2 fast national rating/19 share (15.95 million viewers) for last year's rain-shortened Daytona 500 to 7.7/16 (13.3 million) for Sunday's interminable one. The NBA All-Star Game on TNT had a 3.8 rating.

With Fox broadcasters, TV viewers and an estimated crowd of 175,000 at Daytona left in the dark about the scope of the problem, a crew of engineers tried patching the pothole with two compounds that failed. After trying a third, NASCAR restarted the race — only to stop it again 36 laps later.

The pounding of 43 3,400-pound stock cars had uprooted the patch and turned the pothole into a sinkhole about twice its original size.

So NASCAR engineers scavenged vast quantities of Bondo from race teams in the garage. Bondo is a sort of goop, mixed from polyester resin and a hardener, that is used to fill in dents and dings in battered race cars. It did the trick, holding up long enough for the race to be run to its conclusion more than six hours after it started.

On Monday, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said no decision had been reached about whether Daytona officials would be asked to repave the track's high-banked, 2 ½-mile asphalt surface — a job estimated to cost $20 million.

Daytona hasn't been repaved since 1978. Among drivers, opinions differ about whether it is overdue. Earnhardt contends it is; others say they like its bumpy, abrasive quality.

According to Poston, it is a matter for engineers, Goodyear officials and track officials to decide.

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"We don't know whether it's time to repave," Poston said. "This is something we're going to spend a lot of time with the track on and make an assessment: Do you need to repave the track or focus in on that spot or a couple spots?"

NASCAR is a privately held company, owned by the France family of Daytona Beach. As stock-car racing's sanctioning body, NASCAR makes and enforces the rules, determines which tracks host its lucrative events, and collects fees from track owners, team owners and racers for the privilege of taking part.

The France family also owns International Speedway Corp., the parent company of Daytona International Speedway and numerous other tracks. The issues of a conflict of interest and potential antitrust violation have long dogged the relationship.

NASCAR can dictate a track's operating profit by awarding or denying race events (contracts are for one year, renewable at NASCAR's pleasure) or by demanding specific capital improvements be made — such as repaving — to host a race.

Asked if NASCAR held the ISC-owned Daytona International Speedway to the same standard of maintenance as it did non-ISC tracks, Poston said, "Because of the relationship, those standards are maybe even tougher and higher for ISC. They absolutely are held to the same standard."

Track security guards kept watch over the pothole Monday and shooed away reporters who approached for a closer look.

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