Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

NASCAR'S 'Major' Debate; Drivers' Treasured Races Are Daytona, Coca-Cola, Brickyard; Pepsi 400 Is Close

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

NASCAR'S 'Major' Debate; Drivers' Treasured Races Are Daytona, Coca-Cola, Brickyard; Pepsi 400 Is Close

Article excerpt

Byline: DON COBLE, The Times-Union

DAYTONA BEACH -- As far as Michael Waltrip is concerned, there is only a handful of special races on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series circuit. And as soon as they flipped the light switch at the Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night's Pepsi 400, it became one of them.

"There are a few races that are better than the rest and few that aren't worth much," Waltrip said. "Everything else is in the middle. Any race at Daytona is special."

NASCAR has juggled its schedule and starting times so much that racers now have different priorities. For generations, the four biggest races -- the Crown Jewels -- were the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., and the Southern 500 at the Darlington (S.C.) Speedway.

Now it's different. Winston has left the sport as the series sponsor. The Southern 500 has been moved twice in two years from its traditional Labor Day weekend slot. And stock car racing has a new pecking order.

Everyone agrees the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the season, much like Wimbledon is to tennis. But the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has emerged as the second most important race. What makes that race important is the sense of history that comes with racing and winning at the Brickyard, much like the British Open.

The Coca-Cola 600 is still important for two reasons: It's the longest race on the schedule and it's competed near Charlotte, N.C., the home base for about 90 percent of the circuit.

The Southern 500 used to be racing's version of golf's The Masters -- steeped in tradition. The speedway was built in 1950 for speeds of about 75 mph. Qualifying there earlier this year featured speeds of about 170 mph.

The Darlington Raceway is still considered the toughest track to master. For more than 20 years, drivers called it, "The Lady in Black." Speedway officials have since changed their slogan to, "Too Tough To Tame." A win there, much like a victory at the Augusta National Golf Club, forever changes a driver's life.

NASCAR's "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" promised to shake up the racing schedule, and Darlington's position -- and perhaps its status -- was clearly affected. After 54 years, NASCAR moved the Southern 500 away from its Labor Day weekend spot and moved that race to the newer California Speedway. Darlington's spot was shifted to November.

Next year's schedule will include another move. Darlington's springtime race was moved to the Texas Motor Speedway and the November race was shuffled to May, on the Saturday night before Mother's Day.

"With the way things have changed, the Crown Jewels now are the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600," Wallace said. "After that, just stop."

Most drivers agree. And if there's a fourth Crown Jewel race, the votes are scattered.

Elliott Sadler said he thinks races at Texas or Las Vegas have been elevated to "major" status because their purses generally double most races, while Waltrip said either race at Richmond deserves such attention.

Robby Gordon said races at California are big because of their location close to Los Angeles. Kyle Petty, however, said Darlington should always be considered a major event.

"If I built a brand-new stadium across the street from Wrigley Field and my new stadium had better skyboxes, better viewing, more seats, as a ballplayer where would you rather hit a ball out? Which stadium would you remember the rest of your life?" Petty said. "There's always going to be something special about winning a race at Darlington. Money doesn't always like prestige. Texas and Vegas may someday get the respect they deserve, but right now they're buying it."

Danny Lawrence, a longtime engine builder at Richard Childress Racing, a company which helped Dale Earnhardt win one Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, three Coca-Cola 600s and three Southern 500s, agreed with Petty. …

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