How NASCAR Works


RacingOne/Getty Images Red Byron on Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1950. He won the first Strictly Stock race in 1949 in a similar Oldsmobile coupe. See more NASCAR images.
RacingOne/Getty Images

Imagine taking your family sedan down to the local dirt track to race against other drivers from your neighborhood. Now imagine the spectacle inspired by such a situation. With few rules, regulations and safety requirements, and with driver skill varying tremendously, the race wouldn't be a highly competitive sport, but a wild and woolly dash to the finish line.

NASCAR Image Gallery

That's what stock-car racing was like back in 1949, when the first Strictly Stock race was held in Charlotte, N.C. But stock-car racing -- and its sanctioning body, NASCAR -- has changed considerably since those early days. Today, NASCAR is highly organized and regulated, with cars and drivers that bear little resemblance to anything you'd find on a backcountry road or an interstate highway. The appeal of NASCAR has also grown considerably over the years, so much so that it is now the most popular spectator sport in the United States. If you're surprised by that assertion, consider these facts:

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  • NASCAR is the second-highest-rated regular-season sport on television, with broadcasts in more than 150 countries (a record 12.5 million households tuned in to the Daytona 500 in 2006).
  • The sport boasts an estimated 75 million fans, who collectively purchase more than $2 billion in licensed products every year.
  • More Fortune 500 companies participate in NASCAR than any other sport, with U.S. corporate spending on auto-racing sponsorships reaching $2.9 billion in 2006.­

Why is the sport so popular? Because it brings together a unique combination of elements that Americans can't resist: fast cars; thrills and danger; personable, likable drivers; and numerous tracks within easy reach. This article will examine all of these elements and more to help you understand how NASCAR works, especially from an organizational and procedural point of view. To learn more about specific drivers or tracks or results from a specific year, check out our article on NASCAR in the entertainment channel. You will also want to read How NASCAR Race Cars Work and How NASCAR Safety Works, which cover those particular aspects of the sport.

NASCAR Organization

Cars race around the track in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2007.
Cars race around the track in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 18, 2007.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR, was founded in 1947 by Bill France Sr. The term "NASCAR" describes the sport itself and the sanctioning body that governs stock-car racing. This naming convention is not universal across all motor sports. In Formula One racing, for example, the governing body is the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). In championship drag racing, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) promotes and sanctions events.

Let's take a closer look at both the organization and sport of NASCAR to understand the basic structure of stock-car racing.

NASCAR: The Organization

NASCAR is based in Daytona Beach, Fla., the mecca of auto racing. Today, it has offices in Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City, Toronto, Bentonville, Ark., and Charlotte, Concord and Conover, N.C. From these locations, NASCAR sanctions 1,500 races at more than 100 tracks in 35 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico. The governing body makes the rules, runs the events and makes sure the drivers follow the rules. More importantly, it manages the major racing series and crowns a champion at the end of each season.

As a sport, NASCAR is a variety of racing series. A series is similar to a league in another sport -- a group of teams or individuals who compete in a set number of events and follow rules established by a sanctioning body. Football, for example, has several leagues. There are professional leagues, like the National Football League and the Arena Football League, but there are also many semipro and amateur leagues. Stock-car racing accomplishes the same thing with its various racing series.

NASCAR consists of several series at the national, regional and local levels. The three national series include two for stock cars -- the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and the NASCAR Busch Series -- and one for race trucks, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. It was formed in 1995 to enable the sport to grow without cannibalizing the Nextel Cup Series or the Busch Series. Trucks that race in the Craftsman Truck Series are similar to normal full-size pickups, with these differences:

  • Race trucks have about four times the horsepower of passenger trucks.
  • They are longer than, but not as wide as, passenger trucks.
  • They sit much closer to the ground, with an average height of 59 inches.
  • They weigh about 400 pounds less than factory models.

Drivers who succeed in th­e Craftsman Truck Series will sometimes venture into the world of stock cars. Their first stop is often the NASCAR Busch Series, a stepping-stone league that allows young drivers to gain experience before they graduate to the Nextel Cup Series. Busch Series racers follow the same on-track rules that govern races in the Nextel Cup Series, but their cars are slightly different. The biggest difference between the two types of cars is the power output of the engines. Busch Series engines generate approximately 660 horsepower, compared to about 790 horsepower generated by Nextel Cup Series engines. Even still, cars in the Busch Series can travel almost as fast as their Nextel cousins, mainly because they weigh about 100 pounds less.

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NASCAR Nextel Cup Series

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The pinnacle of professional stock-car racing is the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, which replaced the Winston Cup Series in 2004 and introduced a new scoring system. During the Winston Cup era, equal points were awarded for all races, regardless of length or prize money. The driver who accumulated the most points during the season was crowned champion. When R.J. Reynolds Tobacco dropped its sponsorship after the 2003 season, NASCAR found a new sponsor in telecommunications giant Nextel and decided to change the scoring to make the sport more competitive.

Here's how the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, which will become the Sprint Cup Series in 2008, works. The season is basically divided into two parts. The first part includes 26 races at tracks across the United States. Drivers earn points based on their performance in each of these races. The table below summarizes how points are distributed:

Drivers can also earn five points for leading a lap. An additional five points go to the driver leading the most laps. That means a race winner can earn a maximum of 195 points -- 185 points for a first-place finish, plus five points if he leads a lap, plus five more points if he leads the most laps.

The first 26 races determine the qualifiers for a final 10-race competition to determine the champion. This final race-off is known as the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, or simply the Chase. The top 12 drivers after 26 races qualify for the Chase, but they don't get to bring their point totals with them. To increase competition and excitement for fans, they all have their point totals reset to 5,000. Drivers also receive a 10-point bonus for each race victory they had during the first 26 races. The points in the final 10 races are then determined as in any other race.

Often, the champion isn't determined until the final race of the season. Sometimes, if a driver has a big enough lead, he can clinch the title with two or three races left. Either way, this new system, which was tweaked in 2007 to the format described above, brings a level of excitement to NASCAR that is unrivaled in other motor sports. It has also introduced some measure of discord, especially among longtime fans and NASCAR purists. These fans believe the NASCAR Nextel Cup renders the first 26 races unimportant, or certainly less important. They also argue that the intense competition promised by the Cup has not been delivered, with races coming down to two drivers instead of several.

NASCAR Rules

Jeff Gordon during practice for the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Oct. 11, 2007, in Concord, N.C.
Jeff Gordon during practice for the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Oct. 11, 2007, in Concord, N.C.
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR

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NASCAR racing may have been a free-for-all in the early days, but today it is highly regulated, especially when it comes to the cars on the track. In addition to determining the points system, NASCAR also develops the rules that govern how cars are built and races are run. Let's take a look at what some of these rules cover (and don't forget to check out How NASCAR Race Cars Work for additional information).

Engine: Teams can't use just any old engine. The engine in a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race car must conform to very specific parameters. It must have eight cylinders, a compression ratio of 12:1, a displacement no greater than 358 cubic inches and a performance package that allows for greater engine torque without sacrificing durability. All NASCAR race cars also use a carburetor, not a fuel injector, to deliver the fuel-air mixture to the engine. This is the starting point for each team, which then tweaks and tunes the engine to its liking. As a result, horsepower can vary, although most engines produce about 750 to 790 horsepower.

Body: Even though a NASCAR race car is based on a Ford, Chevy or Dodge that rolls off the factory floor, it doesn't come with the same body. Every team fabricates its body from scratch using synthetic fiberglass composite material, making sure the finished car fits a prescribed length and width. NASCAR requires the rear spoiler to be at 70 degrees.

Tires: NASCAR race cars use wide, treadless tires, but the teams don't have to worry about hauling or installing tires on race day. Instead, Goodyear, NASCAR's exclusive tire supplier, prepares the tires. To help contain costs, NASCAR limits the number of tires a team can use during practice and qualifying. There are no such limits during a race, and most teams use anywhere from nine to 14 sets of tires.

Gas tank: Fuel cells are strictly regulated to make sure gas mileage, not capacity, helps determine winners and losers. The current size of the fuel cell is 22 gallons, but NASCAR may change the spec to 18 gallons in the near future.

NASCAR Cars

Kevin Harvick's crew performs a pit stop during the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Jim Stewart 400 at Richmond International Raceway on May 6, 2007, in Richmond, Va.
Kevin Harvick's crew performs a pit stop during the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Jim Stewart 400 at Richmond International Raceway on May 6, 2007, in Richmond, Va.
Nick Laham/Getty Images

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NASCAR officials invest a lot of time and energy inspecting each car to make sure it conforms to the technical regu­lations. These inspections occur several times over the race weekend: before the first practice, before qualifying, after qualifying if a driver wins the pole position, just before the race and immediately after the race. What exactly are NASCAR officials looking for? In the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, inspectors examine:

  • The body of each car, using a series of templates. Templates are aluminum shapes that fit against and measure specific aspects of the car, including its length and width. The height of each car is also measured to make sure it is at least 51 inches off the ground.
  • The weight of the vehicle filled with fuel, oil and water (but no driver). Cars must weigh at least 3,400 pounds, with at least 1,600 of those pounds on the right side.
  • The ground clearance at several points along the length of the car, ensuring that a car doesn't sit too low
  • The engine specs of each car to make sure the compression ratio and displacement adhere to regulations
  • The safety features of the car. In particular, inspectors look at the safety belts and the window nets to make sure they are securely attached and functioning properly.

Interestingly, NASCAR doesn't have rules that govern how drivers compete on the track. However, there are unspoken rules, known as gentlemen's agreements, that most drivers follow. Gentlemen's agreements rely on the honor of all drivers to compete with a certain amount of respect and courtesy, but as you can imagine, some drivers abide by these agreements more than others. NASCAR can penalize a driver for rough driving, so even "bad boys" must be careful not to go too far.

How drivers behave in the pit stops is a different story. Pit stops are one of the most highly regulated aspects of a NASCAR race. It starts when a driver leaves the race for pit road, which is a separate road running parallel to the main track. Pit roads have posted speed limits -- usually 35 to 55 miles per hour -- so a driver must slow down or risk being penalized. He must also park his car completely within the team's designated pit stall, which is marked off with yellow lines. If his car needs repairs or is leaking fluid, he must go behind the pit wall that separates the pit stall from the equipment storage area. Otherwise, for tire changes and/or fuel refills, he can remain in front of the wall and let the pit crew work its magic. Only seven crew members are allowed to go over the wall to service a car. There are two tire changers, two tire carriers, one jackman, one gas man and one catch-can man, who collects any gas that spills while the fuel cell is being filled. NASCAR rules state that a team may use only two air guns and one jack per stop.

NASCAR officials cover rule changes and other important information at the drivers' meeting, held two hours before each race. The crew chief and the driver of every team are required to attend. If either misses the meeting, the driver automatically starts the race in last place, even if he qualified for the pole position.

NASCAR Sponsors

NASCAR vehicles are plastered with sponsor logos -- even ones for diaper rash ointment.
NASCAR vehicles are plastered with sponsor logos -- even ones for diaper rash ointment.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One of the reasons Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR was to bring a sense of order to a sport that had none in the early years. One of his goals was to draw bigger crowds to the races and to increase the amount of money available to pay drivers and promote future races. Sponsorships quickly became a lucrative way for NASCAR to pay the bills.

NASCAR racing is more sponsor-oriented than any other sport in the world -- and for good reason. NASCAR fans are extremely brand-loyal. According to RaceStat, a syndicated NASCAR research project, 71 percent of the NASCAR audience reported that they "almost always" or "frequently" choose a product involved in NASCAR over one that is not, simply because of the sponsorship. As you can imagine, this has companies clamoring for a piece of the action.

Let's look at the major types of sponsors available in NASCAR:

  • Title sponsors: A title sponsor pays millions of dollars a year to have its name placed in the title of one of the major NASCAR series. It's not just the NASCAR Cup; it's the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series (soon to be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, to reflect Nextel's name change). Title sponsors usually don't relinquish their positions, but it does happen. In 2003, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco dropped its sponsorship, marking the end of the Winston Cup era. And in 2006, Anheuser-Busch officials announced that they would no longer sponsor the Busch Series after 25 years. NASCAR joined forces with ESPN to find the replacement: Nationwide Insurance.
  • Primary sponsors: If a company wants to see its name on a NASCAR race car, it can become a primary sponsor. The cost for such high exposure averages $8 million a season. What a company does with its primary sponsorship can be quite complex. For example, Mars U.S. brands will serve as the primary sponsor of the No. 18 car for 30 races during 2008. Mars will feature the M&M's colors for certain races, and Snickers and Pedigree colors for others. Additionally, Combos, Twix, Skittles, Starburst and Milky Way brands will provide support as associate sponsors.
  • Associate sponsors: Associate sponsors spend less to sponsor a team, but they don't enjoy premium placement of their brand on cars and uniforms. Costs depend on the level of associate sponsorship. The highest level is the major associate, which is just below a primary sponsor. A major associate sponsorship can cost up to $5 million a year.

Making and selling NASCAR-branded merchandise is another important way for the sport to make money. But a company, large or small, can't simply slap the NASCAR logo on its products and start selling them. The company must obtain a license -- for a fee -- to sell merchandise bearing the NASCAR name or the names of its drivers. Once it makes this investment, however, a company can tap into a very lucrative market. Each year, fans purchase more than $2 billion in NASCAR-licensed merchandise, from T-shirts and caps to watches and jewelry.

The Race Team

Jimmie Johnson sprays champagne on his crew after his victory in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Subway 500 in October 2006 in Martinsville, Va.
Jimmie Johnson sprays champagne on his crew after his victory in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Subway 500 in October 2006 in Martinsville, Va.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR

Racing a stock car might seem like a solitary sport, but it's not. NASCAR race teams include hundreds of people who work together to get a car and its driver ready for races all over the country. Here are the major players.

Owner

The owner of a team is like the president of a corporation. He (or she -- there are a few female owners) makes all of the hiring decisions and has ultimate control of the purse strings. In fact, one of the main jobs of the owner is to secure a sponsor, which will provide the bankroll necessary to put together a top-notch team and a winning car. That means owners must possess a strong business sense, regardless of their path to ownership. Some owners, such as Richard Childress, started as drivers. Others come to NASCAR racing after finding success in other ventures. Joe Gibbs, for example, earned three Super Bowl victories as the coach of the Washington Redskins before he started Joe Gibbs Racing in 1991.

Team manager

The team manager is the owner's right-hand man. He oversees most of the day-to-day administrative duties that keep a team running. But don't think of a team manager as some sort of glorified secretary or administrative assistant. Most come to the job with years of experience in NASCAR racing, either as a crew chief or in some other important position.

Crew chief

The team manager works closely with the crew chief, who oversees all of the hands-on activities related to building and tweaking the car that will race on the track. These activities include designing the body, adjusting the suspension, tuning the engine and more. As you can imagine, a good crew chief must know a lot about how a car works, but he must also know how a car handles on a specific track, as well as the personality of the driver behind the steering wheel. Many crew chiefs have engineering degrees and helped design race cars in college.

Other team members

A number of technical positions report directly to the crew chief. Some of them actually travel to the races, and others remain at the race shop to prepare for future races. Here are some of the more important "lesser" jobs on a NASCAR team:

  • The engine specialist is concerned with one thing and one thing only: the health of the race car's engine.
  • The tire specialist monitors the tires on a car, measuring such variables as air pressure, heat buildup and wear.
  • Several engineers work in the garage to make calculations about the major systems of the car and to make sure the technologies used on the car generate maximum performance.
  • In the early days of NASCAR racing, every team member was a general mechanic, but in this era of specialization, most teams employ a small number of mechanics that the crew chief can call on for a variety of fixes and tweaks.
  • The pit crew may be a specialized team of seven individuals, or it may consist of other team members -- the crew chief, mechanics and tire specialists, for example -- who do double duty on race day.
  • The team truck driver is responsible for getting all of the equipment, including the primary car and the backup car, to the track.

NASCAR Drivers

Richard Petty and his father, Lee, at Darlington, S.C., in 1960 with Lee's Plymouth
Richard Petty and his father, Lee, at Darlington, S.C., in 1960 with Lee's Plymouth
RacingOne/Getty Images

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And, of course, we can't forget the driver. As the most visible part of a team, the driver does more than make a few hundred left turns every Su­nday. Today's driver must also participate in test sessions, make appearances at sponsor events (how many depends on his contract), stand in front of a camera for commercial shoots and much, much more. One of the driver's most important roles is keeping his crew chief, mechanics and engineers "connected" to the car. After all, he's the one behind the wheel day in and day out, so he's in the best position to provide feedback about how the car is handling. Based on his input, the team can make adjustments -- to the tires or to the suspension, for example -- until the car runs better.

Clearly, having knowledge about cars is helpful for a driver, but it's not an absolute requirement. Some grow up in and around the garage of a NASCAR team. Others don't. Either way, drivers must have the following characteristics if they are to be successful in NASCAR racing:

  • Mental discipline to stay focused for all three to four hours of a race. Even a minor lapse in concentration can add seconds to a driver's time or, worse, result in a crash.
  • Lightning-fast reflexes to drive bumper-to-bumper and panel-to-panel with 42 cars speeding around a track. NASCAR drivers have an uncanny ability to avoid wrecks and to bring their cars to the finish line with little or no damage.
  • Good coordination to deftly operate the clutch, brake and accelerator while steering through high banks and turns. Smooth shifting of the manual transmission and precise steering are essential to running a good race.
  • High endurance to handle the grueling conditions of a race. Temperatures inside a race car can reach 120°F, and it's typical for most drivers to sweat out three to four pounds of water during a race.
  • Physical strength to wrangle their high-performance cars for an entire race. It takes a lot of muscle power to control a car traveling 200 miles per hour, so most drivers work out to stay in shape.

A NASCAR pedigree is not a requirement to be a winner, but many families have produced their share of great drivers. Consider the Pettys. Lee Petty, the patriarch of Petty Enterprises, won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. By the time he retired just five years later, he had recorded 54 wins, 231 top-fives, 332 top-10s and 18 poles. He was succeeded by his son Richard, who is known in NASCAR as "The King." Richard Petty's 200 victories are a NASCAR record, as are his seven NASCAR Cup championships (an honor he shares with Dale Earnhardt). Richard also holds the record of 1,184 lifetime starts, 126 career poles, most laps completed, laps led, races led and miles led. Richard's son Kyle followed in his father's footsteps. Kyle Petty started 600 races, earning eight victories, 51 top-five finishes and 167 top-10s. Sadly, Kyle's son Adam, another NASCAR driver, died in 2001 while practicing for a race in the NASCAR Busch Series.

Race Week

Cars line up on the track for qualifying in the Toyota All-Star Showdown on October 20, 2006, at the Irwindale Speedway in Irwindale, Calif.
Cars line up on the track for qualifying in the Toyota All-Star Showdown on October 20, 2006, at the Irwindale Speedway in Irwindale, Calif.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images for NASCAR

In the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, Sunday is race day, but a team's work week is not just one day long. Let's take a look at a typical week in the world of NASCAR.

Monday

For NASCAR drivers, Monday is a day spent off the track. They use the time to recover from the previous day's race and, if they performed well, to relive the glory with their team members. Sometimes, they have to make an appearance on behalf of one of their sponsors, signing autographs and standing for photographs.

Tuesday and Wednesday

Teams dedicate two days of each week to testing their cars at tracks where upcoming races will be held. In these test sessions, the crew chief and his team experiment with the cars, finding just the right setup that will allow a fast qualifying time on that particular track.

Thursday

On Thursday, drivers fly to the location of the week's race. Most will travel with their families and stay in motor homes that are parked at the track.

Friday

Qualifying is held on Friday, which is the most important day of the week next to race day. The process involves a driver completing one or sometimes two laps around an empty track. The whole idea is to go as fast as possible without losing control of the car or crashing, and at most tracks, qualifying speeds are often far greater than the highest speeds attained during the race. During qualifying, it's not unusual for cars to exceed 200 mph, even though the average speed on Sunday will be much lower -- perhaps 180 mph, depending on the track.

There are usually more drivers than the 43 available slots in a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race, so getting a good qualifying speed is critical. Only the 38 fastest times qualify, with provisional entries filling the last five slots. Provisional entries are reserved for drivers who don't have a good qualifying session but, because of car owner points accumulated during the season, are allowed to join the field.

Each driver's best qualifying time determines his position in the starting lineup. The pole winner is the driver who runs the fastest lap and gets to start in the front row, usually in the inside position. The second-fastest qualifier usually starts on the outside pole -- the outside position on the front. The rest of the field falls in behind these two cars based on their qualifying times so that the final grid consists of 21 rows of two drivers. One driver occupies the final row.

Saturday

The day before a race is devoted to practicing and strategizing based on the results of Friday's qualifying. "Happy hour" is the final hour of practice and, despite its name, is a crazy and hectic rush to get the car ready for the next day.

Race Day

The start of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Pepboys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Oct. 28, 2007, in Hampton, Ga.
The start of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Pepboys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Oct. 28, 2007, in Hampton, Ga.
Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR

Race day begins with a sponsor's meeting, attended by fans, where drivers answer questions about the day and season ahead. It's an important meeting, but not as important as the driver's meeting. The driver's meeting is held two hours before the race and provides NASCAR officials an opportunity to review important rule changes and other issues that teams must remember throughout the day.

Thirty minutes before the race, drivers are introduced. They walk across the track, waving to the fans, and get into their cars. It's not as simple as sitting down and strapping on a seatbelt. There are several safety measures and specialized pieces of equipment that must be secured before a driver is ready to race. You can read about these measures in How NASCAR Safety Works.

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Finally, the race is ready to start. The "gentlemen, start your engines" announcement tells the drivers that the show is about to begin. As the 43 cars come to life, the noise of revving engines fills the stadium. All NASCAR races begin with a "flying start," which means the cars are in motion when the race officially begins. Drivers line up in their positions behind the pace car and begin to follow it around the track. The driver of the pace car maintains a speed of about 70 mph in front of the pack. Then he pulls over, the green flag waves and the race begins.

Some people think NASCAR racing doesn't require a lot of skill because the cars simply drive around in circles. However, a typical race requires a great deal of strategy and an enormous amount of driver skill. Much of a driver's strategy depends on the characteristics of the track. All tracks have "grooves" -- the part of a track where the car's tires get the best grip. Some tracks have one groove; others have two grooves, a low groove and a high groove. On one-groove tracks, it's much more difficult to pass because a driver must leave the groove and drive on a part of the track that makes the car harder to handle. On two-groove tracks, it's much easier to pass because there's another available "sweet spot" on the track.

Either way, passing is one of the sport's most challenging moves. Good drivers know how to block their opponents, or move their cars from side to side to prevent another car from moving around. This makes passing on straightaways particularly difficult because it's much easier for a lead driver to look behind him in the rearview mirror when he's driving in a straight line. In the turns, however, it's a different story. Drivers have to keep their eyes forward during a turn, so this represents a great opportunity for a trailing driver to sneak around. Many drivers will ride right on the bumper of the car in front and patiently wait for just such an opportunity.

Race Strategy

How much patience a driver exhibits is based on his personality, as well as the stage of the race. Most NASCAR races are 400 to 500 miles long, which can translate into almost 200 laps, depending on the track. The race at the Talladega Superspeedway, for example, is a 188-lap event around a 2.66-mile track, resulting in a 500-mile race. Early in a race, a driver can afford to be patient. If it's getting late, he may have to be more aggressive. "Bumping" is one way to do that. When a driver bumps, or taps, the rear bumper of the car in front, the lead car will often float up the track, giving the trailing car enough room to pass. A similar effect can be achieved by running close to the back of another car and taking air off the other car's spoiler. This disturbs the airflow and makes the back end of the lead car unstable.

A driver relies on his spotter -- a team member who watches the race from the press box -- to help spot vulnerabilities and opportunities. The spotter is in constant contact with the driver, communicating information about accidents, track conditions and the positions of other cars. This exchange of information is especially important on shorter tracks, such as the Dover International Speedway, where drivers are lapping so fast they sometimes lose their bearings and can't locate themselves on the track.

These second-to-second strategic decisions are complemented by other strategies being worked out by the team. Many of these strategies are related to preserving key parts on the car to make sure it delivers peak performance for the entire race. For example, during a long race, a driver may decide to go easy at the beginning to avoid blowing an engine. Or he may slow down more than usual on turns or refrain from braking too hard to extend the life of his tires or brakes.

Of course, some of these issues can be addressed during pit stops, but pit stops themselves become a huge strategic tipping point. Teams must decide exactly when to pit and when to stay on the track, and it's the crew chief's responsibility to make the final call. It's not an insignificant decision: A good pit stop can catapult a driver into the lead. A bad one can cost the driver a lead and, in some cases, a victory.

The Future of NASCAR

Kyle Busch, the first driver to win a race in the Car of Tomorrow, does a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 25, 2007, in Bristol, Tenn.
Kyle Busch, the first driver to win a race in the Car of Tomorrow, does a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 25, 2007, in Bristol, Tenn.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR

If everything goes right, the driver may actually win the race. Then it's off to Victory Lane, where he can celebrate with team members and family. He must also satisfy all of his sponsors by posing for photographs with caps sporting sponsor logos. This is known as the "hat dance." A bottle of champagne, sprayed out over the team, is the finishing touch.

There's much more at stake than a trip to Victory Lane, however. As we discussed earlier, drivers earn points based on their performance in a race, and earning points gets them closer to the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. More importantly, drivers draw their salary from the races. The following list shows a breakdown of the winnings available to a driver:

  • The racing purse (the money -- as much as $250,000 or higher -- a track pays to drivers just for starting a race)
  • Television awards
  • Car owner specialty awards
  • Qualifying and special awards

As a result, drivers can earn significant amounts of money. Jeff Gordon, one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, surpassed the $50 million mark in career earnings in 2002 -- after only 10 years in the sport. After the 2007 season, his career earnings totaled about $65 million [source: FOX Sports].

The Future of NASCAR

NASCAR has come a long way since it was founded in 1947. Many of the innovations in the sport have been technical improvements to the cars and tracks, making NASCAR racing safe without compromising excitement. One of the biggest innovations is the Car of Tomorrow, known as the COT. The Car of Tomorrow is a universal car that NASCAR hopes will eventually yield safer, more competitive and less expensive racing. This chart summarizes the specs of the Car of Tomorrow. Teams used the newly designed race car for 16 events in the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series. In 2008, it will be used at all events.

While some fans feel the Car of Tomorrow is too big of a change for the sport, just consider what Red Byron, who won the first NASCAR Strictly Stock championship in 1949 driving an Oldsmobile coupe, would say about today's cars, drivers and tracks. No doubt he would hardly recognize the equipment, although he would be quite familiar with the hallmarks of NASCAR -- adventure, thrills and excitement -- that won't ever change.

To learn more about NASCAR, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Fielden, Greg. "NASCAR: Races, Tracks & Superstars." Publications International, Ltd., 2007.
  • Martin, Mark, and Tuschak, Beth. "NASCAR for Dummies, Second Edition." John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
  • NASCAR on Fox Sports. http://msn.foxsports.com/nascar
  • The Official NASCAR Web Site. http://www.nascar.com/
  • Ryan, Nate. “NASCAR’s growth slows after 15 years in the fast lane.” by Nate Ryan. USA TODAY, Nov. 15, 2006. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/motor/nascar/2006-11-14-nascar-cover_x.htm
  • Zimmerman, Jenny. “The beaches give birth to speed.” Daytona Beach News-Journal, Feb. 12, 2003. http://www.nieworld.com/special/racing/thatwasthen2.htm