Of all the major team sports, NASCAR has been in need of the biggest overhaul. The Wall Street Journal just wrote an article that says NASCAR is “spinning out of control.” They have started some of it, by adding charters and altering the playoff format to more resemble the elimination playoffs of the other sports. But some more work is needed. This post, I’m going to give you some history that goes beyond the redneck racer stereotype and explains where the sport really came from.
Former Charlotte Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, probably seen as the most expert stock car racing historian (because he has been eye witness to so much of it), lists the start of the “modern era” of NASCAR as 1972, when Winston, a cigarette brand of RJ Reynolds Tobacco, became the title sponsor of the sport, and also the year the points standings was created. Prior to that, NASCAR’s top level of racing was called the NASCAR Grand National Series. There were races on weekends and during the week, as many as 50 races in a calendar year. That’s how Richard Petty managed to win 200 races, whereas in modern times, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to get half of that. Even Jeff Gordon, the best racer of his generation, didn’t even get to 100 wins. You could get guys like Petty and David Pearson to run 35-40 races, Petty wins 15 of them, Pearson wins 10, they sit out about a dozen races and walk away as the NASCAR Grand National Champion. There was a second, lower level of racing called the NASCAR Sportsman Division as well.
With Winston on board as the title sponsor, a point standings system was developed. Any racer could get 5 points for leading 1 lap of a race, plus an additional 5 points for leading the most laps. Then, points were awarded based on finish – 175 for 1st, 170 for 2nd, etc. After 6th place the difference decreased from 5 points to 3, and after 12th place, it dropped 2 points per position. This system was designed to force racers to race the entire schedule, eliminating the possibility of racing part of the schedule but still winning the title, which would now be called the Winston Cup champion. Anhiseur-Busch came on to sponsor the second level of racing, to be called the Busch Grand National Series. The Sportsman Division became the 3rd level of racing, similar to Class AA of baseball minor leagues. (Eventually, NASCAR would develop racing with trucks to be the 3rd level, eliminating the Sportsman Division.) The desired effect was reached, with racing schedules settling down to 29 races, with 36-40 cars that all participated in all the races. The racing quality greatly improved. Thanks to a blizzard that snowed in about half the US population in February 1979, there were a record number of viewers for the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race. Richard Petty won thanks to a last-lap pass of Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison as they collided going for the win. As Petty took the checkered flag, Yarborough and Allison got in a fistfight on the backstretch. NASCAR was now in the sports mainstream.
The unintended consequence of the new points system was that you did not need to win the most races to win the championship. This came to a head in 1985. Bill Elliott, driving what would later be discovered as a 7/8th scale car (which increased downforce, making the car go much faster), dominated the series, winning 11 of 29 races. The sport’s largest track is Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, at 2.66 miles in length. Combined with high-banked turns, cars could easily surpass 200 mph. In one race there in 1985, Elliott fell 2 laps behind, and made both laps up under the green flag, going 30 mph faster than every other car on the track. But Elliott did not win the championship. Darrell Waltrip, running in the top 10 nearly every week and getting 5 wins, got the trophy. It had been discovered that if you ran consistently good, always making good finishes, could get you the championship over someone who won more races but also some very poor finishes. This was a bone of contention for the uber-competitive racers like Dale Earnhardt, who would gladly run over his mother to be the first to get to the checkered flag. His win-or-die approach won him legions of fans, me included. It also won him legions of enemies, who called him a dirty racer.
Things changed forever back at Talladega in 1988. Elliott and his 7/8th scale car qualified for the spring race at over 212 mph. During the race, Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison crashed, leaving him so injured that his racing career was over. NASCAR decided the cars must be slowed before someone got killed. For all future races at Talladega and Daytona, the only other track on the circuit where 200 mph laps were common, a special plate was to be placed over the carburetor of the engine. The plate has 4 small holes designed to restrict the airflow through the carburetor, reducing the engine’s horsepower, and the car’s speed. The plate had its desired effect, reducing speeds by 20 mph at Talladega and 15 mph at Daytona, to a maximum of around 190 mph. Elliot was also found out and was forced to run cars scaled as other cars. (He did win the Winston Cup title that year, but that was his only title and he was never again as dominant as he was in 1985.) But again, there were unintended consequences. With all the cars running the same engine, there was little separation and the 4 races at these 2 tracks featured the entire 40-car field running in one big group. Every race would feature what would be called, “the big one” – a massive wreck that would eliminate anywhere from 5 to 20 cars from the race. Many were critical of this setup, especially Earnhardt. “They talk about needing to make it safe and slow the cars down,” he once grumbled. “Do you wanna race or not? I wanna race.” He was in the middle of a dominating run. He won the championship in 1986 and 1987, finished 12 points behind Rusty Wallace in 1989, won the title again in 1990 and 1991, and after dropping to 12th in the standings in 1992, won the title again in 1993 and 1994. Added to his unprecedented championship in 1980 in only his second full year on the circuit, he tied Richard Petty for the most championships won with 7. He would never win another, thanks in large part to a cocky, California-raised, “I don’t fit any NASCAR redneck stereotype” driver named Jeff Gordon. After being courted for a driving career by Ford for his entire childhood, Gordon spurned the oval for the bowtie of the cars of owner Rick Hendrick. His first full season was in 1993, and his first win was at the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte in 1994. He would win his first championship in 1995, two more in 1997 and 1998, and would trample the competition for 10 wins and a 4th title in 2001.
“The big one” would continue to come at every race at Talladega and Daytona. More and more drivers were complaining about the dangers of the big-pack racing. Earnhardt still complained the loudest, even after finally winning the Daytona 500 in his 20th try in 1998. He founded a racing company, Dale Earnhardt Inc. For the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was the car owner for 3 cars in the race – longtime friend Michael Waltrip, Steve Park, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. As the race wound down, the man who was famous for running and wrecking other racers out of his way in search of a win found himself in 3rd place, with two of his cars ahead of him, Waltrip in the lead and Junior in 2nd. He suddenly turned into a blocker for his DEI cars, keeping other competitors from challenging for the lead. As they entered turn 4 of the last lap, Earnhardt and Ken Shrader made contact, and Earnhardt shot up the track into the outside wall, causing “the big one.” Waltrip moved on and held of Earnhardt Jr. for the win – his first win in a NASCAR race in more than 15 years of competing.
The menacing #3 of Earnhardt had slid to the infield grass, and first responders rushed to him. Almost immediately, a tarp was pulled over top of the car, a sign there was a very serious injury involved. An ambulance swiftly carried him to a hospital, and shortly thereafter was pronounced dead.
The loss of NASCAR’s biggest name shook everyone to the core. Earnhardt fans were destroyed. Personally, I have just about no recollection of my life for the entire week that followed. I remember hearing the news, then stumbling into the bedroom to tell my wife. I remember that I went to work the next day, and I was waiting for my bus while listening to Earnhardt memorials on the radio. The next thing I remember is watching the beginning of the next week’s race at Rockingham, as Darrell Waltrip led the invocation, and Dale Jr. wrecked himself out of the race on the second lap. The rest of that week is a total blank in my mind.
I am not a crier, not by any means. It’s just not something I do. I shed a few tears when my grandfather died in 2003, and a couple of times when the wife and I have had very contentious arguments. But that’s about it. I’m just not wired to cry very much. I’m pretty sure I cried a couple times over Dale Earnhardt’s death though. You can talk a lot about NASCAR fans – their dialect, lifestyle, views on people of other racial backgrounds – but you can certainly see that they are fiercely loyal to their favorites, and are very brand-loyal.
Most of us decided to shift our allegiance to Dale Jr. When he left DEI to drive for Rick Hendrick, I couldn’t follow. Can’t stand Hendrick, never have been able to. Rick Hendrick and Ford cars – don’t bring either near me! I decided to pull for the drivers of Richard Childress Racing, where Earnhardt had won 6 of his 7 titles. So I don’t really have a favorite driver anymore as much as a favorite organization. Now that Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, has brought the #3 back on to the track, I am pulling for him a lot. His brother Ty runs a partial schedule, and Ryan Newman and Paul Menard drive for RCR, so I pull for them. I’d also love to see Danica Patrick win a race or two. That’s a whole other blog post though.
Finally bending to the ear of the people screaming that the points system didn’t put enough emphasis on winning, NASCAR decided to adopt something that resembled a playoff system. This would be introduced at the same time as the new title sponsor to replace Winston, as political pressure was also mounting on NASCAR to rid themselves of a cigarette title sponsor. The new title sponsor would be Nextel, the cell phone provider that was most famous for being the first to introduce walkie-talkie style phones to the market.
One other aspect of the racing I haven’t mentioned is the massive expansion. When the Winston Cup setup was announced, there were about 29 races at about 15 tracks. A large percentage of those tracks were in the Southeastern US – Martinsville, Richmond, North Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Rockingham, Bristol, Darlington, Atlanta, Talladega, and Daytona were 10 tracks that held 20 races each year. By the time the 21st century began, there were tracks in Las Vegas, Southern California, Kansas, Chicago, New Hampshire and Texas that had races, and many were demanding a second race. The circuit also began racing at Indianapolis Speedway in 1994. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro were eliminated, and Atlanta and Darlington were reduced to 1 race to accommodate the new tracks. The vast majority of the new tracks were 1.5 miles in length, able to hold more fans than the small tracks like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro. This didn’t sit well with long-time fans, who complained all the 1.5 mile tracks on the schedule made the racing predictable and boring.
As Nextel was announced as the new title sponsor, “The Chase for the Nextel Cup” was unveiled. The schedule had ballooned to 36 races. After the 26th race, the driver in first place would have his point total reset to 5,000, and then decrease in standard intervals for those in 2nd through 10th place. This would ensure that whoever was in 11th place was mathematically eliminated from championship contention. The final 10 races would be “the chase” where those top 10 would battle it out for the title. The Chase would be modified several times, with extra points added for race wins, eventually a race win becoming a condition of qualifying, and an elimination factor where after every other Chase race, those at the bottom of the Chase standings would get eliminated, to the point where by the last race of the year in Miami, only 4 racers were eligible to win the title. Kurt Busch won the first Chase in 2004. Jimmie Johnson, a protégé of Jeff Gordon, won 5 in a row from 2006-2010.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not won a championship, the #43 car has won only 4 races since Richard Petty retired in 1992, and in 3 years driving the #3, Austin Dillon has yet to win a race. Johnson won his 7th championship in 2016, tying him with Petty and Earnhardt for the most ever. Nextel, of course, was purchased by Sprint, who took over title sponsorship as part of the purchase. Sprint announced it would no longer sponsor NASCAR after the 2016 season.