DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There are few venues on NASCAR’s schedule quite like Daytona International Speedway in July.
Sweltering summer heat and humidity with rain and lightning always lurking. Kiddie pools and American flags everywhere. A usually intense night race on a slippery surface. An over-the-top fireworks display afterward.
It’s a one-of-a-kind celebration at NASCAR’s most famous track.
It also could be history following Saturday night’s 400-mile race at Daytona.
A significant scheduling shakeup has the iconic race tethered to Independence Day moving to late August in 2020 and becoming the Sprint Cup Series’ regular-season finale. It’s a bold break from tradition that’s been met with mixed reviews.
“There’s not a lot of other tracks that can provide what Daytona can provide on a holiday weekend,” retired NASCAR driver and current NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve never tried to celebrate that weekend anywhere else other than Daytona.”
The holiday sporting event seemingly has lost some of its luster over the years, unable to fill the grandstands like the 500-miler in February. Numerous tweaks may have caused the dip.
From 1959 through 1987, the race ran on July 4 before being moved to the Saturday of the closest weekend. From 1959 through 1997, the race started no later than 11 a.m.
It moved to prime time in 1998, and few of the current drivers even remember it as anything else.
“It’s kind of disappointing for me,” defending race winner Erik Jones said. “Growing up, you always had the big July 4th race at Daytona, and that is where everybody was. That is what you did on Saturday night. You watched the race at Daytona.
“It’s a little bit of a bummer. It’s a tradition and kind of some of the things in the sport that have stuck around, and this is one of those things and I’m sad to see it go. It’s a change of the times, but maybe we will make it back over here at some point.”
Unpredictable weather played a factor in the move, along with NASCAR trying to boost its struggling race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by heading there for the holiday in 2020.
And the change doesn’t appear to be a one-year trial.
“This wasn’t a decision we said, ‘Hey, let’s go there for a year and rotate it,’ ” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “Our intent is to stay for a few years and see how we net out.”
Daytona’s annual summer event already has produced plenty of iconic moments.
Richard Petty notched his 200th and final victory at Daytona in 1984, with president Ronald Reagan in attendance. Earnhardt won in 2001, five months after his father died during the last lap of the Daytona 500. Tony Stewart climbed the chain-link fence near the finish line after his 2006 win, his second of four victories during Daytona’s summer race.
As for Thursday’s practice, there were some fireworks when Brad Keselowski said he sent a message by intentionally running into William Byron.
Keselowski was upset about Byron’s blocking a year ago at Daytona and retaliated during the second of two practice sessions Thursday.
Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet sustained enough damage that his team switched to a backup car before qualifying and will have to start at the rear of the field for Saturday night’s 400-mile race.
“I had a big run and put me in a position where I had to lift, and I keep telling these guys I’m not lifting,” said Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion. “I hate it for his team that they have to work on their car and so do ours, but just trying to send a message that I’m not lifting.”
Byron seemed to block Keselowski twice before the contact, once high and then again low. Keselowski hit Byron in the rear bumper when he turned in front of him again, causing Byron to slide sideways and nearly wreck. Byron managed to keep the car from spinning.
Byron said he knew exactly what prompted the incident.
“I was in the lead last year and he was second and I guess he felt like I threw a block,” Byron said.
“I thought I was clear there, which obviously I was, and he just decided to kind of get me in the left rear and then really kind of gave us the damage on the right rear. It’s practice, I get it, but I don’t think that was really necessary to turn us.
“I guess it was kind of a message sent, but I still saved it. At least I didn’t put it into the fence. No harm, no foul to us.”
Keselowski said blocking has caused him to wreck in four of the past five races at Daytona.