Positive – a word that hasn’t been used very much around the NASCAR world lately. In a time where the sport been constantly beaten and battered by its fans and media for declines in TV ratings and attendance, the sport has been looking for anything to help stop the drop. NASCAR needed it’s 2017 season to kickoff with some sort of positivity.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 delivered it.

The Great American Race took place in front of a jam-packed stadium with fans from 41 different countries, including every state in the U.S.

Pre-race scene at Sunday’s Daytona 500. Photo by Christian Espinoza.

Fans were so tightly packed in the infield area prior to the start of the race that it was hard to even walk around. The concourses in the grandstands were full with lines of people waiting for food and souvenirs. Traffic getting into the track was backed up for miles, both before and after the race. The grandstands were packed with a sea of over 100,000 ecstatic race fans wearing their favorite drivers shirts and hats.

“When we got to the track and felt the atmosphere of the venue, it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” said long-time fan Elijah Burke, who attended his first Daytona 500 on Sunday. “I couldn’t believe how many people were there. People who don’t watch NASCAR don’t realize the size and magnitude of the sport. The 500 is unforgettable. My driver didn’t even win but I’m walked away with a smile on my face because of how amazing the experience was.”

The sellout crowd wasn’t the only viewership positive of the day. Early TV numbers reported a uptick in ratings for the race compared to last year. FOX Sports PR tweeted that overnight ratings were up 7% from last year’s Daytona 500, a jump from 6.1/14 to 6.5/14 in metered market ratings. FOX also saw a jump in viewership of it’s lead-in and post-race shows. The pre-race show jumped 16% and the post-race show jumped 21% over 2016. And on top of all that, FOX projects that the race will rank as the most-watched and highest-rated sporting event since the Super Bowl. Sunday’s Daytona 500 ended up being a big TV positive for both FOX and NASCAR.

The field coming to the green flag. Photo by Zach Darrow.

There were many factors that seemed to help the ratings uptick. The race started one hour later than it has in previous years, meaning the final laps pushed more into the primetime hours on FOX. Sunday’s Daytona 500 featured great racing and intricate strategies along with the new stage format that NASCAR is using this year. While the race was halted numerous times for wrecks, the drivers never seemed to back down from racing hard. There also seemed to be more urgency throughout the entire race, which led to constant hold your breathe moments – the type of racing the sport needs in order to continue to thrive.

“I’d say overall, really pleased,” stated NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, Steve O’Donnell. “We saw a lot of great, hard racing. Everybody knows that every driver wants to win the Daytona 500. We saw drivers up on the wheel all day long, racing hard, and that’s exactly what we expected from the format.”

Sunday’s race was also the kick-off event for Monster Energy’s reign as the title sponsor of the series. In a perfect storm situation, their driver, Kurt Busch, was able to save enough gas and capture the checkered flag. The Las Vegas native was all choked up after the race as he celebrated with his team in the tri-oval grass and in Victory Lane – his first time doing so in the Daytona 500.

“You always hope that it can happen,” said Busch after the race. “Today is that day. It happened because of all the great teamwork, great sponsors on this car, the great engine under the hood from Doug Yates. I felt like this time around was the most complete that I was going into Speedweeks. I believed in it. I’m just so happy that it all turned out. So thank you, Daytona.”

Kurt Busch celebrating in the grass. Photo by Zach Darrow.

Monster Energy couldn’t have had their first event as title sponsor play out any better. Fans around the track were treated to a huge activation effort by the energy drink brand, including free samples of their drinks and exciting dirt bike displays. The Monster Energy girls were out in full force outside the track and even in the drivers meeting. Monster Energy CEO, Rodney Sacks, even made a last minute trip down to Daytona and was in Victory Lane celebrating with Busch and his team. He was accompanied by Monster athlete and Patriots tight-end Rob Gronkowski, who also in attendance on Sunday.

“It’s my first Daytona 500. Having a great experience and just having a blast,” said Gronkowski before the race. “I’ve never really gotten to tailgate, never got to run around, so it’s cool to run around, meet people, enjoy the atmosphere and seeing how it really goes down outside the stadium when everybody is getting prepared for the big event.”

A pleased title sponsor, a packed house, higher TV ratings, and great racing could be a sign of brighter skies for the sport’s future. There are those who may say one race isn’t enough to judge whether or not NASCAR is back on the right track – and that’s fine. But it’s hard to think of another race that left the sport with so many positives for everyone involved in the sport to look back on.

Hopefully one day in the future we will be able to remember the 2017 Daytona 500 as the race that finally pushed NASCAR back into the fast lane.

Southern California native who has made the trek across country to North Carolina to chase down my dreams and aspirations in the motorsports industry.