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Crown Jewels: Three NASCAR Races Stand Above the Rest

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By Jared Turner

While every race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule awards the same number of points to win, not all races are equal in notoriety, prestige and fanfare.

In fact, only three of the 36 annual points races for NASCAR’s premier division are universally considered “crown jewels” of the sport.

What makes these events stand tall above all the rest? Let’s explore:

Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway

Since its inaugural running in 1959, the Daytona 500 has been the biggest and most important race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Although it didn’t become the season opener until 1982, the 500 – long known as The Great American Race – gained immediate prominence because it was the first NASCAR race run on a true superspeedway.

And this superspeedway – 2.5 miles in length and featuring wide, high-banked corners and unprecedented speeds – was the brainchild of NASCAR founder William H.G. “Big Bill” France, who started the sport upon commencing a meeting with fellow visionaries at Daytona’s Streamline Hotel in December 1947.

So, in addition to being the first house of speed that Bill France built, Daytona International Speedway is just down the road from the birthplace of NASCAR. No wonder it’s the race everyone dreams of winning but many drivers never do because it’s so incredibly hard.

“There’s a lot of great drivers that have had great careers in the sport that have not won this race,” said 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who is 0-for-8 in attempts to capture the Daytona 500 – an event his father, Bill Elliott, won twice. “You look at Tony Stewart never having won this race, right? Tony never won it. Look at Kyle Busch, a guy that has not won it, either. The list goes on from there, too.

“It’s a difficult race to win. You have to have a lot of things go your way. You can do everything perfect and still not win this race. It’s a tough one. I would love to check the Daytona 500 box, no doubt.”

It took the late seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt 20 tries to finally leave Daytona International Speedway – appropriately dubbed “The World Center of Racing” – with the coveted Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 winner’s trophy in hand. It took three-time Cup Series champion and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip 17 attempts.

As Chase Elliott pointed out, three-time Cup champion Stewart never claimed the sport’s most-sought-after hardware. Neither did Rusty Wallace nor Mark Martin nor Terry Labonte. Among active drivers, only eight have managed to triumph on the sport’s grandest stage. Active drivers who’ve yet to experience a taste of Daytona 500 glory include former Cup Series champions Elliott, Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski.

While the absence of such names from the list of Daytona 500 winners might seem surprising, it shouldn’t be when one considers the degree to which all the stars must align for a driver to come out on top. Unlike in most events, a driver’s finishing position in the Daytona 500 hinges largely on the kind of push he manages to get in the draft over the final lap or two. But to even be around at the end and have an opportunity to win the 500, a driver must first avoid the multi-car wrecks that so often result from the close-quarters, three- and four-wide racing that Daytona breeds.

“It’s the Super Bowl of our sport, and it’s hard to accomplish this one,” Busch said. “It’s a race where you rely on a lot of different factors than you do just yourself. A lot of your result can be in the hands of the other drivers around you and the circumstances around you. That’s just the nature of it, but you know, we all have the same race to go out there and run in.”

Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

A fixture of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule since 1960 and located in the proverbial backyard of virtually every major NASCAR team’s headquarters, Charlotte Motor Speedway is special for a lot of reasons.

One of the biggest is the fact that CMS – the historic 1.5-mile quad-oval, not the CMS ROVAL that’s only been on the Cup Series schedule since 2018 – is home to the longest race on the Cup Series tour. That race is the Coca-Cola 600, held every Memorial Day weekend.

The 600, which consists of 600 miles or 400 laps on the 1.5-mile track, is regarded as one of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events because it’s the ultimate test of man and machine. More specifically, it’s the only race with four stages – each at 100 laps – and it’s the only race out of 36 featuring more than 500 miles.

Winning the 600 requires a unique combination of physical and mental fitness along with a car that can hold up for 600 miles and get better – not worse or even remain the same – as day turns into night.

“My two favorite races of the year are the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600,” Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon said. “Charlotte is a body-killer. It’s a rough track. Six-hundred miles there is a grind, and I really love that race. I was able to win the Coca-Cola 600 in 2017 and was very close to getting another win. 

“You just know after years of being in the 600 and being able to win that race that you are in for the long haul. It’s a grind because it’s so long, and, mentally, you must stay in it to have a chance to win. It all comes down to that last 100 miles. It’s probably the most challenging 100 miles we race all year. Leading up to 600 miles you have to be flawless. It’s a mental and physical task. The Coca-Cola 600 is a great race to be a part of.”

This year’s Coke 600 – won by Ryan Blaney of Team Penske – marked the 64th installment of the marathon-style affair, which assumed its present name in 1985 after Coca-Cola became its title sponsor. Prior to that, it was known as the World 600. 

Among the tracks that have hosted Cup Series races over the course of NASCAR’s 75-year history, only Daytona, Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway have been the site of more events than Charlotte.

Given the unique place that Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the Coca-Cola 600 in particular, holds in the sport, it’s no wonder that finishing atop the leaderboard in NASCAR’s longest race is considered such a monumental achievement and a feather in the cap of anyone who manages to pull off the demanding feat.

“When you win the 600, you get to go upstairs in the Speedway Club and get the jacket – you get a ring and a jacket – and it’s a big deal,” two-time Coke 600 kingpin Martin Truex Jr. said. “It’s not like winning a normal race. Anytime you get to do those things it’s really special, and you definitely savor the moment.”

Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

The oldest race on today’s NASCAR Cup Series schedule, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway marked the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first Cup Series race on an asphalt surface.

First run on Sept. 4, 1950, this race – now formally known as the Cook Out Southern 500 – was a staple of Labor Day weekend through 2003 but spent the next 11 years in various spots on the Cup Series calendar before eventually returning to Labor Day weekend in 2015.

Featuring a rustic charm fans won’t find anywhere else on the NASCAR tour other than perhaps Martinsville Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway, Darlington is a racer’s race track in every sense of the phrase.

The fabled facility’s one-a-kind 1.366-mile, egg-shaped layout presents a test for drivers that’s unlike any other they face all year. Throw in the fact that the Southern 500 is one of only a few 500-mile races left on the Cup Series schedule, and you’ve got an event with all the makings of a “crown jewel.”

“I’ve always loved Darlington Raceway,” said Austin Dillon, who’s 0-for-14 at the South Carolina venue but finished second to Kevin Harvick in the 2020 Southern 500. “It’s a historic track and a lot of drivers and teams circle it at the beginning of the year as a place they would love to win at, myself included.”

The fastest way around Darlington is unconventionally the longest way – that is, right up next to the outside wall – but driving in the upper groove carries a certain risk. The risk being: The closer you get to the wall, the more likely you are to run into it and potentially damage your race car.

Striking the perfect balance between going fast and steering clear of the concrete poses a clear challenge for drivers past and present, who almost unanimously stand behind Darlington’s long-held nickname as the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

“That’s a real fitting slogan,” said 1989 Cup series champion Rusty Wallace, who was denied a victory in 43 starts at Darlington. “It’s one that’s been around forever, and ever and it was too tough for me to tame. I couldn’t tame it. I fought it and played with it. A great way to describe my career there was sporadic success.”

Ricky Craven, who edged Kurt Busch at Darlington in a 2003 race that will forever stand as one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history, believes one of the main keys to success here is not getting so caught up in battling with other drivers that you let your guard down and fail to race the track itself.

“When you become preoccupied with racing somebody, when you become overly occupied with the guy that’s in front of you that’s holding you up, the guy that should have yielded but he won’t, you try to find a way to get by and then you get a little anxious and say, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and then the next thing is ‘Wham,’ you’ve hit the wall,” Craven said. “Why? Because you forgot where you were. You forgot that you were at Darlington. And Darlington doesn’t allow you to do that.”

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