The Daytona 500 – A Primer for Non-Race-Fans Posted by: Billy Hollis
on Sunday, February 18, 2007
The Daytona 500 is the first race of the NASCAR season, and it will be run this afternoon. For many, it’s the only NASCAR race they’ll see all year. So I’ve put together a handy-dandy set of essential facts and concepts, so you can fit right in with the serious NASCAR fans if you go to a Daytona 500 party.
Despite the fact that I grew up in the South, I didn’t pay any attention to NASCAR. Then I married into a NASCAR family, and picked up the essentials through osmosis. That semi-outsider’s view is what I’m using to get you up to speed (har).
The Daytona 500 is sort of the Superbowl of NASCAR, except that they hold it as the first event of the year instead of the last, so anybody can win it. Some famous racers never notched a victory in the 500, while unknowns such as Derrick Cope lucked into a victory. It’s as if the Superbowl could be going on, with Indianapolis and Chicago fighting it out, and all of sudden Detroit sneaks onto the field, scores the winning touchdown, and gets the trophy.
If you are not familiar with the sport, long stretches of the race will be rows of cars with random numbers streaking past the camera. Those are the boring parts, unless you’re into the subtleties of the sport, such as “pit strategy”.
The non-boring parts are the wrecks and the last couple of laps. If a NASCAR fan goes to the bathroom and comes back, he or she will generally ask “Did anything happen?” The translation of that is “Did anybody wreck?”
On super-speedways such as Daytona, the cars go close to 200 miles per hour. And they travel within a few inches of each other. This can make for some spectacular wrecks. When NASCAR fans talk about “the big one”, they mean the wreck that takes out a dozen cars or more. Most super-speedway races include at least one occurrence of “the big one”, with cars going in every direction, into the wall, each other, and sometime flying into the air. “The big one” will be replayed about twenty times, and will also be the first scene shown on the sports wrapup on your local newscast, so if you miss it, don’t worry.
The winner is determined by who survives the big one and the other wrecks, and who gets lucky on the last lap.
Because of the high speeds and the resulting air resistance, cars can’t drive alone on the track without being much slower than “the pack” of cars running together. Much of the time, the cars will run single file. To make a pass, a driver pulls out of line and hopes/expects some other drivers to follow him. If that doesn’t happen, he gets “hung out to dry”, and will lose a whole bunch of positions in a hurry.
On the last lap, everyone goes all out and there are sometimes three lines of cars racing for the finish. Most of the cars finish within a second or two of each other. A running joke in NASCAR is “I was half a second behind the leader at Daytona.” “Where’d you finish?” “17th."
The biggest drama this year at Daytona is a cheating scandal. Toyota is entering the sport for the first time, and their flagship team is owned by Micheal Waltrip, who is often called “Mikie”, and who is the brother of racing legend Darryl Waltrip, who I coincidentally ran into at the Outback in Franklin, Tennessee (where he lives) last month. Very few people seemed to recognize Darryl. Anyway, back to the cheating scandal. Somebody on the Waltrip team did something against the rules, something about oil in the manifold. There were huge penalties, but Waltrip still managed to get into the race. So expect the announcers to play up the “Waltrip overcomes adversity” thing all day today.
Other teams got caught in the cheating scandal for various infractions, such as boring holes in the car where they’re not supposed to be. You might think that’s silly, and so do I, but the NASCAR guys take it seriously because it affects the aerodynamics of the car, and maybe because they don’t want the race cars on the track looking like Swiss cheese.
Another big story this year is the death of well-known racer and announcer Benny Parsons. He died of cancer a few weeks ago. He was a very successful racer, but as an announcer, he’s mostly known for calling Jamie McMurray “MacMary”.
You should pick a driver to cheer for. If you don’t pick one, there’s a chance the NASCAR fans will assign you one. That happened to me. Since who wins the Daytona 500 is largely a matter of luck, it doesn’t make much difference who you get.
If you start following a driver, you are expected to be loyal to that driver’s sponsors. If you are a Jimmie Johnson fan, you shop at Lowe’s, not Home Depot. You’re also supposed to be more loyal to companies that sponsor cars than companies who don’t. My wife will only buy Duke’s Mayonnaise, because they used to sponsor a car.
Diminutive names are common in NASCAR. We’ve already mentioned Mikey, Jamie, and Jimmie (not Jimmy!). Others include Ricky Rudd, Bobby (definitely not Bob) Labonte, Tony Stewart, and Denny Hamlin. Kenny Wallace failed to qualify, but you may hear his brother, former champion Rusty, in the broadcast booth. As someone named “Billy”, this all sounds perfectly fine to me.
The most popular driver, naturally, has the most diminutive name. He’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but he’s known as Junior. His dad was one of the all time greats in sport, but was also known as a dirty driver. Many have speculated that the character of Chick Hicks (the car with the mustache) in the movie Cars was based on Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Anyway, Junior is wildly popular despite the fact that he’s never really done that much. He’s a good driver, and has some wins including a Daytona 500, but he’s never won a championship. For comparison, a driver named Matt Kenseth came into the Cup series the same year as Junior, and Matt won Rookie of the Year that year and a Cup Championship a couple of years later. Yet nobody outside the sport knows who Matt is, while Junior appears in Bud commercials during the Superbowl.
Which leads to another drama this year. Junior drives for a company named Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated, commonly called DEI. It’s owned by Junior’s step-mother, who inherited it after Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was killed in a wreck at the Daytona 500 several years ago. Since Junior is the best driver in the company, and has a personal relationship with perhaps the most significant sponsor in the sport, Budweiser, he feels he should be given majority ownership in DEI as part of his next contract. Given that if he left, DEI would be left with a couple of unknown drivers and a bunch of cars that will be obsolete in two years, he’s probably right.
Speaking of names, you can follow the race better if you know a few nicknames. The most important is “Smoke”, which means Tony Stewart, two-time Cup Champion and widely considered to be one of the most talented drivers ever to be in the sport. Others include Ryan “Rocketman” Newman, so called because he’s the best qualifier in the sport, and Kevin “Happy” Harvick, who replaced Dale Earnhardt, Sr. when he died. (You got all this?)
The commercials for NASCAR races tend to be pretty funny. Watching Jeff Burton sit across from his car insurance agent and explain why he has so many wrecks, for example. While not up to the standard of Superbowl commercials, you’ll probably be more entertained by the commercials than by the boring parts of the race.
That should be enough to help you fit in. Enjoy the race.
Update 10:45 AM CST
Commenters have pointed out a couple of additional notes. In particular, Richard Speidel mentioned Jeff Gordon, and if you're going to be with a gang of NASCAR fans, you should definitely know something about Jeff.
Gordon is a four-time Cup champion, and is one victory away from tying Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for career victories. He took the sport by storm in the mid-1990s.
But being a Gordon fan will get you accused of wussiness by old-line NASCAR fans. Gordon is just a little too slick for their tastes. He also didn't go through the dues-paying that was considered traditional for new drivers. He came in and immediately started contending for championships. Some fans have never forgiven him for that.
Gordon is also one of the human interest stories this year. He recently got engaged to a European supermodel, got married to her, and got her pregnant, not necessarily in that order. So he's going to be a new dad, and there will be much bloviating about whether this will affect his racing focus, etc. Ignore all that and just stare at his new wife. She's a knockout.
You lost me at NASCAR...I guess it’s all right if you’re some kind of White, Southern Xstian Redneck Godbag interested in misogyny and wife beating, but for those of us interested In Social Justice and Liberation from the phallocracy that ensnares and enslaves, Womyn and People of Colour we’ll just skip right over this nasty screed of yours and get back to Pandagon....
And I thought there was SOME hope that this site wasn’t just a bunch of knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing mullet-wearing beer-swillers, how wrong I was. You know if you people would just read Senator Edwards campaign blog and and vote the right way, I’d like you more.
And I apologize if any of you misogynistic, mouth-breathers thought I was insulting you or your beliefs...I can understand how you might be insulted, lacking the higher intellectual skills necessary to grasp the Satire and Truth of my posting. Any way sorry if any of you Holy-Ghost worshipping Rednecks took offense at my posting.
Regarding who you root for....as a native of Daytona, although not a NASCAR fan, it’s worth pointing out that some groups are vigorously against other groups when it comes to fandom.
For some years, for instance, "anyone but Gordon" (Jeff Gordon, #24, main sponsor Pepsi) was a major theme. May be this year, given his car got moved to the back of the field for being too low, but NOT disqualified like what happened to Waltrip.
Needless to say, if everyone around you has a #8 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr) or a #3(Dale Earnhardt, Sr, generally) on their stuff, you do NOT want to cheer for Jeff Gordon. ;)
Yep, Richard. And the Earnhardt contingent seems to be especially easy to offend if you back someone else, especially if you question the greatness of Dale, Senior.
It’s an odd thing about Jeff Gordon. He was the first guy to break out of the sport’s Southern image, appears on billboards for expensive Swiss watches, has married a supermodel, and has won four championships, and he still gets booed at races. I guess the southern fan base just wasn’t ready for him.
Well - you got bulk of it right. Surprised that Darrell didn’t attract more attention, possibly folks in his home town are ’used’ to his presence. The Mikie issue may have been an oxygenator found in the intake manifold (and elsewhere from what I’ve heard)- there are a couple of things you don’t mess with in NASCAR, tires and fuel - and messing with fuel is what they believe was going on. Big black eye for Toyota and they don’t take kindly to being embarassed.
Daytona is one of the ’Superspeedway’ tracks and as such it utilizes ’restrictor plates’ between carburetor and intake manifold to limit the amount of air allowed in the intake of the engine - bear in mind that an engine is merely an air pump (with some explosions thrown in for good meaure ; -). You’ll hear the term ’restrictor plate racing’ used in a derogatory manner by all concerned.
If you pick a driver, remember the number of his car. Tony Stewart is, "that 20 car". (BTW, Tony races dirt tracks, midgets and sprints, he owns the Eldora track and won the Chili Bowl this year. He races on short tracks under the name of ’Smoke Johnson’ and the short tracks are where the real racing is.)
The start of the racing season is the Daytona 24 hours (held in January and it was a great race this year). The best of the early Daytona NASCAR action is the Dual 150s on the Thursday before the 500. A real insiders favorite (and a good excuse to duck work for an afternoon).
A bit of history - the NASCAR superspeedways are direct descendants of the board tracks of the teens and twenties in the 20th century.
Another thing to watch today is how Juan-Pablo Montoya fares in his Nextel Cup debut - a lot of F1 folks are tuned into this - there’s big money in stock car racing and NASCAR may be a way for some top notch international drivers to extend their careers.
But truth be told - I’ll have the race on, and a book handy, and I’ll pay attention to the replays and the last ten or so laps. So much for me being a diehard NASCAR fan. Oh, and the best book I’ve read on NASCAR is "Sunday Money" , by Jeff MacGregor, even Joe’ll enjoy it!
Thank you, Billy, for an enjoyable essay. If we weren’t already NASCAR fans, we’d tune in just to see it for ourselves. Being fans, we enjoy not only watching the races, but watching and listening to the drivers, crew chiefs and others involved in the sport - an interesting collection of people with diverse personalities and appearances who all bring something different to the table. It’s a shame some would be narrow-minded enough to lump fans and participants of a sport into a stereotype.
"Diminutive names are common in NASCAR" "The most popular driver, naturally, has the most diminutive name."
Somehow I do not think there will ever be a driver called "Timmy". The "Roundy-Rounds"(?) are one aspect of Southron culture that I do not miss. I find grits to be more exciting than watching NASCAR races.
"And I thought there was SOME hope that this site wasn’t just a bunch of knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing mullet-wearing beer-swillers, how wrong I was."
You were not entirely wrong. Some of us do not wear mullets, and not just because of lack of hair. The mouth breathing is not our fault, it is a genetic thing, adenoids or something; all my kin seem to have it. At least I have been told it is genetic, something about it being in breeding.
" Any way sorry if any of you Holy-Ghost worshipping Rednecks took offense at my posting."
Apology accepted. To show that I have no hard feelings, I would like to let you and another damyankee of your choice in on the ground floor of a truly magnificent investment opportunity. I recently came into possession of some prime waterfront real estate, and.....
Billy - thanks for putting that article up on the site - and wasn’t that the ’20’ car sliding upside down across the finish? There was an old superstition about not running numbers that could be read upside down.