Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that series officials hoped to run the final 33 laps of Sunday’s Cup race at Daytona International Speedway “but every indicator we had was that we weren’t going to be able to do that and kind of said enough is enough and for the safety and sake of everybody, unfortunately, had to call the race.”
The result was that Justin Haley, who was leading when the race was halted at 3:18 p.m. ET for a lightning strike was declared the winner when NASCAR called the event at 5:30 p.m. ET because of rain.
The race had been delayed from Saturday night. O’Donnell addressed on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” why the series didn’t attempt to run the race later in the evening as it did in 2015. That race did not start until after 11 p.m. because of a rain delay and ended at 2:44 a.m.
“The time to dry the track (Saturday night) just didn’t give us the opportunity to potentially finish the race before 2, 2:30, 3 in the morning,” O’Donnell said. “We learned some hard lessons in the past of when we started a race really late, thought we had a window to finish the race, and we did but it was way too late, I think, for the competitors and for the industry. You learn as you go and not something we wanted to repeat, so we didn’t go ahead on Saturday night.
“(Sunday) again, long delay and long red flag and certainly wanted to see those last laps play out, but every indicator we had was that we weren’t going to be able to do that and kind of said enough is enough and for the safety and sake of everybody, unfortunately, had to call the race.”
Lightning delayed multiple activities throughout the weekend at Daytona International Speedway. O’Donnell explained the sport’s lightning policy.
“It’s fairly consistent for really outdoor events,” he said. “If you look at college football, they have the same policy. What that is, and it’s hard to understand if you’re sitting at home watching, but even if it’s not raining, if there is a lightning strike within 8 miles, that’s an immediate stop for us or as soon as we can get the cars stopped on track and an immediate plan for the track for them to evacuate their personnel.
“We rely on the track for that data and once that comes across our phones and notifications that it’s within 8 miles, we go into action and do that. From that strike, it’s a 30-minute minimum before we can resume activities. It’s almost like a countdown clock. You get another strike, you start the clock again. We had numerous (lightning strikes) throughout the afternoon. You saw us load the drivers back into the car and when we were about to fire the engines we had another lightning strike and that started the clock again.”
O’Donnell was asked about the key moment in the race just before the red flag. With the race under caution, series officials announced to the field that the green would come back out on the next lap. Kurt Busch led. Landon Cassill was second. Busch and Cassill pitted, allowing Haley, who was third, to assume the lead.
Shortly after that, NASCAR announced it was brining the cars down to pit road for a lightning strike. That would lead to Haley being declared the winner.
“We had obviously every indication that we were going to go back to green, but like I said, once you get an indication (of a lightning strike), you move as quickly as possible to bring the cars down pit road and red flag the race,” O’Donnell said. “We’re not watching who’s leading, who’s where in terms of when we get that indication. … We obviously put out over the radio that we were bringing the cars down pit road wherever we were on the track the next lap. This case, I think we were coming out of Turn 2 on that lap and notified everybody that we were bringing the cars down pit road.”
O’Donnell also explained how weather is monitored for NASCAR events.
“We’ve got about 20-plus people in race control ourselves with all the weather monitors,” he said. “Two doors down, the track has three or four people, all they’re doing for that race is looking at weather.
“We’re in direct contact on the phone. I was back and forth with those folks I’d say every five minutes. Very confident in the system that is in place, the alert system that is in place. Something that you never want to do, but when you’ve got safety of the fans and the industry at stake, you make that call. It’s the right call and we’re always going to do that.”
O’Donnell was asked that with only 33 laps left and the track having lights, why series officials didn’t wait out the weather and complete the race Sunday night.
“You look at when that race was supposed to start, which was the night before, already postponed,” he said. “You look at the following day when we started the race at 1 (p.m.) and the time of the red flag, how long we’ve waited for the entire industry and then what we’ve got to look at is what is a realistic time to get a race restarted and how long is right to have fans sitting around in poor elements across the board.
“All of our indicators were that was going to be an unrealistic timeline. We thought we put on a great race throughout the day and throughout the late afternoon. It’s unfortunate. We wanted to see those last 30 laps too, we thought in the interest of the safety and the fans that was the right call to make. You never know what is going to happen after make those calls but stand by it.”