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How the Daytona 500 Works

What Makes the Daytona 500 Special?

The Daytona 500 is different from the other 35 events on the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule -- and not just because of its Florida locale, which showcases the Atlantic Ocean, palm trees, and bikinis in addition to racing.

The Daytona 500, which takes place in late February, is the culmination of a two-week motor-orgy known as Speed Weeks. Speed freaks love Speed Weeks.

Even before Speed Weeks, the place is hopping. NASCAR teams spend January testing their cars at the track. Then the festival of speed kicks into high gear with the 24 Hours of Daytona (an endurance race featuring sports cars, not NASCAR stock cars); the International Race of Champions (an all-star event with drivers from several different racing disciplines); the Bud Shootout (a 70-lap NASCAR exhibition made up of pole winners, or drivers who qualified in the top spot for races, from the previous season); a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race (featuring modified pickup trucks); a NASCAR Busch Series race (run by "minor league" drivers); a pair of qualifying races for the Daytona 500; and -- finally -- the main event.

Sound hectic? It is.

The Daytona 500 is the first race on the NASCAR calendar.
©Wieck Media
The Daytona 500, otherwise known as "The Super Bowl of NASCAR," is
the first race on the NASCAR schedule. Weeks of events lead up to the race.

The Daytona 500 is the only NASCAR race in which the starting lineup is not determined by qualifying (drivers earning their starting positions based on speeds posted while driving alone on the track for either one or two laps). For the Daytona 500, the first two starting spots in the 43-car field -- the pole and the outside front-row spot -- are determined by qualifying speeds. The remainder of the field is then set by how drivers finish in a pair of 125-mile races.

Sound confusing? It is.

Before Speed Weeks revs up, teams have already spent a month testing and tuning their cars, an indication of how much emphasis is placed on the Daytona 500. It's NASCAR's Super Bowl. But whereas the Super Bowl ends the season in the NFL, the Daytona 500 starts it in NASCAR. Why? Because NASCAR thinks it produces maximum drama.

Sound backwards? It is.

But the strategy has worked. "I think it's a great idea," says Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. "We start our season with a bang. There's a big buildup, a lot of excitement, then we run our biggest race of the season. That kind of sets the stage for the rest of the year. To me, winning Daytona is just like winning the Super Bowl; we just do it at a different time."

The difference is, the champion of the Daytona 500 won't necessarily be crowned the champion of the season. NASCAR has a
points system, highlighted by a 10-race shootout at the end of the season called the Chase for the Nextel Cup, that determines the season champ. Drivers get points based on how they finish in each race of the season.

Sound mathematical? It is.

The Daytona 500, on the other hand, is easy to understand: The driver who crosses the finish line first is the winner. And in the process, that driver gains a measure of immortality.

The mystique of the Daytona 500 has been decades in the making. In the next section, we'll examine the race's history, including why it takes place in sunny Florida.

For more information on NASCAR and on high-performance cars, check out:
  • The Daytona 500 has produced some legendary finishes. We pinpoint the best of the best in The Top 10 Daytona 500s Ever.
  • Ever wonder what makes a stock car go? Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out.
  • Driver safety is a huge concern in NASCAR. Learn what measures the series takes in this area by reading How NASCAR Safety Works.
  • Muscle cars embody the NASCAR philosophy of speed and power. Here are features on more than 100 classic muscle cars, including photos and specifications for each model.