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The Great American Race: The Daytona 500!

February 11, 2010

This Sunday, Feb 14th, 2010, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) fans will tune in to watch the 52nd running of “The Great American Race”; 500 miles of white-knuckle, high-octane, edge-of-your-seat advertisements & commercials ad nauseum racing.  To put that in context, 500 miles is the distance (“as the crow flies”) from Denver to Topeka, and while it’d take you & I about 9hrs to complete that distance driving on I-70 (which is actually about 536 driving miles), the driver pulling into victory lane at the Daytona International Speedway will have completed that same distance it in about 3 hours.  Do the math: 500 miles / 3 hours = 166 miles per hour, on average, which includes pit-stops, caution-flags, etc.

The speedway itself is located about 5-miles west of Daytona Beach, FL, and about an hours drive north of Orlando.  At 2.5 miles around (FYI, all NASCAR track-lengths are determined by measuring the distance around the track at a distance of 15-feet from the outside wall.) it’s a big track, one of 6 “Super Speedways” in the NASCAR circuit, which consists of 30 different tracks of various shapes & sizes.  The design of the track, with its 31-degrees of banking in the corners*, 18-degrees in the front “Tri-Oval”, and 3,000ft backstretch, all conspire to accomplish one thing: to enable race-cars to go very, very fast!  In fact, were it not for horesepower limiting restrictor plates mandated by NASCAR (which is why NASCAR fans will refer to Daytona as a “Restrictor Plate” track, or sometimes just a “Plate Race”), which restrict the flow of air into the engine, the cars would reach speeds of over 230+ mph!

31-degrees of banking, by the way, is quite steep.  It’s roughly equivalent to the steepness of the ski jump at the Winter Olympics (which is slightly steeper, at 35-degrees)

The biggest race of the year draws a lot of attention, and with a seating capacity of 168,000, which dwarfs the seating capacity of any NFL stadium, to include Sun Life Stadium (max cap. 76,500), where the Superbowl was held last weekend, DIS delivers.  Think about that for a second: there will literally be twice as many people in attendance at the Daytona 500 than there were at the Superbowl!  Suffice to say, it’s a pretty big deal.

But enough hype.  You could have looked all that stuff up on your own, but (my guess is) you didn’t.  Why?  Answer: Because you don’t care.  So my task, as I see it, is not so much to show you why you should care, but to (hopefully) explain why it is that some people do care; as much as it appears at first glace, there really is a lot more going on that “Go Fast, Turn Left”

For example, when teams make an “air pressure adjustment” to a car, that’s a bit of a misnomer:

Most of the teams remove the air from the tires and replace it with nitrogen. Compressed nitrogen contains less moisture than compressed air. When the tire heats up, moisture in the tire vaporizes and expands, causing the pressure inside the tire to increase. Even small changes in tire pressure can noticeably affect the handling of the car. By using nitrogen instead of air, the teams have more control over how much the pressure will increase when the tires heat up.

Yes.  They really are that serious about going faster.

And another thing: unlike other sports where (in theory), at some point in the schedule, there is a clear favorite and a clear underdog, in NASCAR, the very best stock-car drivers in the world go head-to-head every race!  It’s like a Superbowl every weekend.  The best of the best!


NASCAR is relaxing some of its rules this season, and encouraging drivers to show more aggression and emotion, in large part to answer a growing fan sentiment that the sport had gone stale.

“There’s an age old saying that NASCAR, ‘If you ain’t rubbing, you ain’t racing,’ ” NASCAR president Mike Helton said Thursday. “I think that’s what the NASCAR fan, the NASCAR stakeholders all bought into, and all expect.”

The first change will be evident when the season opens next month at Daytona International Speedway, where restrictions on bump-drafting will be lifted and horsepower will be increased by the use of the largest restrictor plate since 1989.

NASCAR had been slowly tightening its tolerance on bumping at Daytona and Talladega — the two biggest and fastest tracks in the series, where the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates are used to control speeds — and it graduated into an outright ban issued the morning of the November race at Talladega. The edict sucked the drama out of what’s typically one of the most exciting races of the year, and was the final straw for many race fans who had grown tired of watered-down racing.

Here’s why: Click on this link to view the qualifying times for the Daytona 500.  Or, if you’d rather not, here’s what’s germane:

  • 1st (Pole) = 47.074 sec
  • 43rd = 48.035 sec (-0.961)
  • 46th = 48.057 sec (-0.983)

You read that correctly: the difference between the pole position, and 46th, which doesn’t even qualify for the race (“only” 43 drivers can qualify for a race), is less than 1 second!  In other words, the difference between victory lane and “also ran” looks a lot like this…

By the way, Daytona 500 qualifying is completely different than any other race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. The drivers compete in standard time trials, but then also hold two races to set the starting lineup.

First, the front row is locked in based on qualifying time trials that happen on the Sunday before the Daytona 500. Each driver gets two laps alone on the track to post their best speed.  The top two drivers from that qualifying session are locked in and will start the Daytona 500 from the front row.   For the 2010 “Great American Race”, those two drivers are (1) Mark Martin, and (2) Dale Earnhardt Jr.


Mark Martin, who led the Sprint Cup Series with seven poles last year, added another to his resume, putting his No. 5 Chevy in the top starting spot for the Feb. 14 season-opening Daytona 500. Navigating the 2.5-mile superspeedway in 47.074 seconds (191.188 mph), Martin edged Earnhardt (190.913 mph) for the pole.

Those two drivers, who will start first and second in the 52nd running of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, are the only two who know their positions on the grid for the Valentine’s Day event. The starting order for the rest of the 43-car field won’t be determined until Thursday, with the running of the two Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races.

These two 150-mile races will set the final starting lineup for the Daytona 500. Drivers that qualified in odd-numbered spots run the first race to set the lineup for the odd-numbered (inside line) starting positions and those in the even-numbered spots run the second race to set the lineup for the even-numbered (outside line) starting spots.

I should point out that although Daytona is the “biggest” race of the year, the winner receives the same amount of points as does the winner of any of the other 35 races during the season.  At the end of the season, Jimmie Johnson the driver with the most points wins the championship.  Here’s how the points breakdown works in NASCAR:

Finish Points
1st 185*
2nd 170
3rd 165
4th 160
5th 155
6th 150
7th 146
8th 142
9th 138
10th 134
11th 130

Everything from 12th spot on down is scored in intervals of 3 points, so that 12th spot receives 127 points, 13th receives 124points, and so on.

* In reality, NASCAR should go ahead and give 1st place 190points, because a driver scores 5 bonus points for leading a lap, even if the only lap he leads is the very last lap of the race.

Additionally, a driver can score another 5 points if he (or she) leads the most laps in a race.  Therefore, the most points a driver can earn in a single race is 195 points: 185 for winning + 5 for leading a lap (even if it’s only the last lap) + 5 if he/she happens to have a kick-ass car and leads the most laps.  The worst a driver could do is 34 points for 43rd place.

Anyway, yes there are a lot of good reasons to dislike NASCAR; I’ll be the first to admit that.  However, there are also a lot of some good reasons to like NASCAR (Carl Edwards ESPN magazine cover notwithstanding, for you Frothygirlz out there), but it’s hard to imagine how any of them could compete with this:

Gentlemen, Start…Your…ENGINES!!!


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