For this week in sports, let’s go outside the “Big Four” sports, as I call them, that usually grab the most attention from American fans (football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) and focus on another lesser known but hugely popular sport, NASCAR! My goal is to give those who have never given the sport a chance to learn about it and quiet the notions that all that these guys do is drive around in circles — there are some oval shaped tracks too!
Let’s begin with a crash course in NASCAR, or the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. A race consists of 43 drivers who qualify to compete. Races range from 200 mile road courses to 600 mile super speedways. There are 36 races in a season, and what makes the sport unique is that the most popular race, the Daytona 500, occurs at the beginning of the season rather than at the end.
A driver is awarded points based on his place at the end of a race. First place gets 43, second place 42 and so on until last place gets 1 point. A driver can also get a bonus point for leading a lap, leading the greatest number of laps or 3 points for winning the race. These points are cumulative, and after the 26th race, the “Chase for the Sprint Cup” begins, the equivalent of playoffs. The top ten drivers qualify along with two “wild cards” that did not finish in the top ten but had the most wins. The driver who has the most points after the last race from this field wins the Sprint Cup Championship.
Still with me? Just like a football game, there are certain things you watch for during the race. Stock cars can’t finish a race without pit stops, so drivers come in to the pit lane to get a new set of tires, a full tank of gas and any mechanical adjustments necessary to combat changing track conditions. And all this occurs over the course of about 15 seconds. Any longer and the driver risks losing major time against his competitors.
Once they are back on the track, drivers constantly look for ways to increase their speed on the course while maintaining grip. On the biggest tracks, speeds can reach over 200 mph. A new type of racing arose last year due to some speedways receiving new paved surfaces called two car drafting. This means one car literally rides the bumper of the car in front of it to create a 900 horsepower monster that can go even faster due to its aerodynamic properties. Fun to watch? Yes. Absolutely dangerous? Yes. All NASCAR drivers need to be physically fit in order to race at incredible speeds for up to four hours while avoiding everyone else on the road who wants to win. A driver can lose up to 10 lbs of sweat during a race that can be decided by as little as two thousandths of a second.
Let’s get on to this season. Danica Patrick, one of the most popular and successful women in motor sports today, decided to switch over to stock car racing and made her debut in the Sprint Series at the Daytona 500. Since then Patrick has agreed to run a full Nationwide Series schedule (essentially NASCAR’s minor leagues) and 10 races in the Sprint Series. All eyes will be on her to see if her attempt to transition from Indy car racing to stock car racing will be successful.
Tony Stewart won the Sprint Cup Series last season in spectacular fashion, winning five of the last ten races of 2011. With new crew chief Steve Addington, Stewart will have a lot of work ahead of him to remain a contender this year. So far Stewart has already won a race in Las Vegas at the Kobalt Tools 500.
Finally we get to this week’s Auto Club 400, a 400-mile long race held in Fontana, Ca. on Sunday. If you are looking to see what NASCAR is all about, tune in this Sunday to experience a sport that has passionate fans and constant action!