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NASCAR Basics    Share

How does NASCAR Work?
 
NASCAR, or The National Association for Stock Car Racing, is the most popular type of car racing.  NASCAR is actually the association that governs stock car racing, and sanctions several levels of car racing.  Like just about everything in the world today, each level is sponsored by a major company, with the highest level known as the “Sprint Cup” Series.  The other levels are the “Nationwide” Series, NASCAR’s minor league, and the “Camping” World Truck Series, the pick up truck level.  I won’t address the other levels, as they really aren’t popular TV sports and few people know anything about them, or really even care. 
 
The Sprint Cup Series is a series of 36 races, with each race consisting of 43 stock cars competing on the track.  Drivers are closely associated with their car numbers, and are very much their “brand.”  Most fans know the numbers of many of the drivers, and real fans know all of them.  You’ll hear commentators refer to the “number 24 car” during a race, assuming that most viewers know this is Jeff Gordon.  NASCAR is a wildly popular spectator sport, with its popularity on TV only surpassed by the National Football League (NFL).  Talladega Superspeedway, built on an old airfield, can hold 175,000 people, an obscene number when compared to the NFL’s largest stadium, FEDEX Field, the home of the Washington Redskins at just over 91,000. 
 
The Regular Season and Play-Offs
 
What is obvious is the way to win is to be the first to cross the finish line, or to win the “checkered flag” (the flag that is waved at the finish line to indicate the end of the race).  What is less obvious and more confusing is the point system that gives points to drivers based on two things:  final position in a race and number of laps led.  A driver accumulates points throughout the first 26 races, what is sort of like the regular season.  The top twelve drivers then enter what is known as “The Chase for the Sprint Cup.”  These last 10 races are like the play-offs for NASCAR.  After the first 26 races, the 12 drivers with the most points are the only ones that actually compete in The Chase for the Sprint Cup, although all the cars still race on the track.  The Chase is a relatively new development for NASCAR, since 2004 to put some excitement in the sport.  The Chase is essentially the same format for points, with the leader at the end of the final 10 races, the winner of the Sprint Cup.  The first race of the points season this year was 14 February, with The Chase starting 19 September in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.  The final race will be the Ford 400 at Homestead – Miami Speedway.
 
Recent History
 
Two people have dominated the sport in recent memory (mine, maybe not yours) but for very different reasons.  The first is Jimmie Johnson.  Jimmie has won the last four Sprint Cup Championships.  This is not only a unique feat, but represents complete domination of NASCAR in the last four years.  He’s nicknamed Superman and was named “Athlete of the Year” by the Associated Press in 2009.  Nobody can really pinpoint why he’s so successful.  It’s probably a combination of his talent, his Crew Chief, and the quality of his car.  Of course, that’s sort of like saying the best football team has the best players, the best coach, and the best equipment.  Duh.
The second figure in NASCAR is the late iconic driver Dale Earnhardt.  He is tied with Richard Petty for the most victories (7).  He was killed in 2001 in a car wreck at Daytona Speedway on the last lap in the third turn (turn 3).  NASCAR fans everywhere were in shock and have honored him in numerous ways to date.  From commemorative plates to naming their firstborn Dale, “The Intimidator” will not soon be forgotten by NASCAR fans.  His car number, #3, is open to use, but nobody has used it in a Sprint Series race.  One driver did use the #3 in a NASCAR truck race, but he wrecked in turn 3, in nearly an identical manner as Earnhardt, only adding to the mystique.  Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt’s JR, or simply known as “Junior” by his fans is also an extremely popular driver.  Some of this is sentiment from his late father, but much is due to his success.  He was named NASCAR’s most popular driver every year from 2003-2009.  Despite amassing 18 race victories, he has yet to win a Sprint Cup and in 2007 he even left his father’s racing team in pursuit for the Cup.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the driver Jeff Gordon.  Gordon has become to many the driver they love to hate.  He has been one of the sports best drivers, being the quickest driver to 50 wins and amassing 82 victories and four Winston Cup (predecessor to the Sprint Cup) Championships.  He is disliked for many reasons, but it mostly is because of his dominance of the sport, especially against the aforementioned Junior.  In my opinion, most men really hate him because he owns two jets, a yacht, and is married to a Belgian supermodel.  We want to cheer for guys that look like us: 50 lbs overweight, struggling with a mortgage, and in a rat race job.  This does not describe Jeff Gordon. 
 
One more thing…
 
Ok, so let’s be honest for a minute.  We all have seen the movie Talladega Nights and know that Ricky Bobby is closer to reality than fiction, right?  If Jeff Foxworthy has made about a thousand references to your sport, then you might be a redneck.  If you’re from Minnesota, you may need a translator to understand the commentators on a Sunday race and a passport to get into a race.  NASCAR’s history is tied to the south and traced to prohibition.  To be successful in bootlegging booze, one only needed a good brand of moonshine and a fast, small car capable of evading the law.  Moonshine and stock cars survived prohibition, and both became a favorite past-time indulgence of many in the south.  But before you pass judgment on NASCAR as a redneck or country sport, consider this.  Jimmie Johnson, the four-time winner of the Sprint Cup, is from California.  In fact, this year, there are drivers from Tasmania, Italy, Sweden, and Indiana.  Increasingly, NASCAR has moved into mainstream American and the numbers speak for themselves.  NASCAR is broadcast in 150 countries and outstrips nearly every sport in TV ratings, even the NBA play-offs (not including the finals).  NASCAR is a truly American sport that has found its way into the living rooms of Americans from Maine to California.  Even so, I have a feeling if you head to your next race in Alabama and you bring your mullet wig, you might just fit in.
 
 
Send comments to: Chris@notasportsguy.com

Terminology:

Drafting: driving close behind another car to reduce air friction on the trail car.  It significantly reduces power requirement upon the trail car, and without drafting on fast tracks, cars would not be able to keep up with the pack
 
The Intimidator: Nickname for Dale Earnhardt
 
Checkered Flag: The flag that is waived at the finish lap of the race
 
Caution Flag: A yellow flag that signals the racers to slow down due to dangerous conditions such as debris on the track – usually after a wreck.
 
Crew Chief:  Like the head coach of the racing team.  He not only directs the mechanics, but helps the driver with strategy over an intercom system.
 
Pit Road: Side road on the track where drivers pull off the track for gas, new tires, or maintenance.  If a car pulls off, he’s said to be “pitting.” 
 
Wedge: Refers to the weight balance between the right-front and left-rear wheels.  The adjustment will change how a car turns on the track, looser or tighter.  You may hear it mentioned as a “taking out a round of wedge” or “adding ½ a round of wedge.”  This is because it is adjusted with a wrench on a bolt through the rear windshield.