NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 is Sunday.
No other race will attract as much buzz throughout the season or be seen by as many fans on television. So if you’re new to the sport or just curious about what all the fuss is about, here are few things to know about the Great American Race:
The 500 is often referred to as NASCAR’s Super Bowl. This isn’t really true. For starters, it’s the first event of the year, not the last. And there is no championship at stake. That happens in the season finale, this year at Phoenix Raceway in November.
Finishing first in the 500 doesn’t even mean great things for the winning driver. Only nine times has the 500 winner gone on to win the Cup Series’ championship (most recently by Jimmie Johnson in 2013).
But there is a case to be made that since Daytona is NASCAR’s most prestigious race, and with the anticipation of a new season in what’s usually a warm February day on the Florida coast, there is a Super Bowl vibe about it.
Although most of NASCAR’s Cup teams are headquartered in the Charlotte, N.C., area, the sport’s official headquarters are in a gleaming office building in Daytona Beach, Fla., right across the street from Daytona International Speedway. It was on a rooftop bar in Daytona Beach’s Streamline Hotel in 1947 where a group of businessmen, led by NASCAR founder Bill France, met to form the sport.
The first Daytona 500 was held on a sandy beach racetrack before it was moved to the 2.5-mile speedway in 1959.
The Daytona 500 is also unique in how its field is set up. Normally, qualifying for NASCAR Cup races takes place on a single day, with the field determined by which drivers make the fastest qualifying laps.
Not so at Daytona. The pole winner — and only the pole winner — is determined by a qualifying run the preceding Sunday (this year won by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). The remainder of the field is set Thursday night in a pair of twin qualifying races. Qualifying all gets back to normal next week at Las Vegas.
Seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty made his name at Daytona. Among his NASCAR record 200 victories, seven of them came in the Daytona 500 — which is also a record.
There hasn’t been any driver recently to approach those numbers. Even the great Dale Earnhardt only won the 500 once, 1998. In fact, the past eight 500s have been won by seven different drivers, with Denny Hamlin (2019 and ‘16) the only repeat winner over that span.
The 2001 Daytona 500 will be remembered as the day the sport lost the legendary Earnhardt, who died when his No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall during the last lap.
If there was anything positive to come from Earnhardt’s death, it was the increased safety measures that the sport instituted soon thereafter. They included mandatory HANS devices to stabilize a driver’s head and neck in a crash, soft wall barriers and redesigned seats and seat belts.
There have been no deaths in NASCAR’s three national series since Earnhardt died.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.