While Matt McLaughlin is enjoying a well-deserved vacation, Frontstretch rookie Doug Turnbull stepped in to share his thoughts on which is the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500 or the Brickyard 400? Matt will be back next week to give his stance on all of the racing developments at the Brickyard. If you like what you read, be sure to check out Doug’s column this Tuesday to find out how ESPN fared in its broadcast of the first Cup race of the season in Indy.
After the last off week of the season, the Sprint Cup Series travels to one of the most storied racetracks in the United States – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This race and this racetrack has a different feel in comparison to many of the others that the series races at, especially some of the tracks visited most recently. However, despite the history of the track and the fondness that many show toward these hallowed grounds in the nation’s heartland, a win in the Daytona 500 still means far more than grabbing the checkered flag at the Brickyard.
There is no doubt in my mind that a Daytona 500 win is more meaningful to every driver on the NASCAR circuit than a Brickyard win. That race has been the sport’s biggest race since the track’s opening in 1959. The speed demons on the beach in Daytona set the stage for not only how much Daytona would end up meaning to racing, but how big NASCAR would grow. When Bill France saw this potential and gathered that famous group of racing figures together at Daytona’s Streamline Hotel in 1947, the stage was set for Daytona to become the hub for stock car racing. When NASCAR started to grow and France wanted a crown jewel racetrack to rival Indianapolis, the high banks of Daytona International Speedway were born.
As you may well know, drivers did not know what to expect for the first Daytona race. They had never seen a track of its size and had never traveled at the speeds that were inevitable through the high-banked turns. The legendary first finish at the track, where Lee Petty barely edged Johnny Beauchamp at the line and NASCAR needed three days to decipher photographs to declare Petty the winner, set the stage for the numerous legendary finishes to follow.
Many years did not have to pass before the Daytona 500 was one of the most sought after – if not the most sought after – trophies to win in the entire sports world. It certainly was in the NASCAR realm, though. One characteristic that sets NASCAR apart from other sports is that its biggest competition is the first race of the season. I think that this only adds to the allure of the 500.
When teams prepare to race at Daytona, they come and test at the track one month before the race. The media circus also follows suit, and begins churning out stories in anticipation of the main event. SPEED Channel, for the last couple of years, has bragged about its 100 hours of NASCAR coverage leading up to the Daytona 500. There is a countdown to the 500 every offseason on Jayski’s website. These examples show that the Daytona 500 means more than any other race to not only the drivers, but the media.
One factor that amplifies the significance of the race is the presence of the unknown. New or revamped teams, with new sponsors, new drivers, spiffy paint schemes, internal personnel changes, new setups, new manufacturers, and new owners come prepared to set the world ablaze, with a good run in the so-named Great American Race. Teams that may have just come short of winning the championship travel to Daytona with the hopes of gaining the few extra points needed to win. Teams and drivers that struggled mightily are redeemed as they enter the Daytona infield and settle in the garage, knowing they have the same amount of points as the competitors in the next stall.
The Daytona 500 is a proving ground for everyone. Winning streaks and strings of consistency from the previous year do not matter. The months of December and January have cooled any hot teams’ heads of steam. The race itself proves to be a great equalizer, as the nature of restrictor-plate racing bunches up the pack of drivers, allowing almost all of the field to be in contention to win the sport’s top race until the waning laps.
The Daytona 500 is so big, that many part-time teams place it on their schedule, in hopes of gaining maximum exposure during the race and getting a full-time sponsor. As a result, qualifying races are needed on top of time trials, to determine that the best drivers and teams make the field of the feature event.
Out of all the races that could elude a driver, which race is mentioned the most? Daytona is. The only race that people talk about that Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin never won is the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip each needed many tries to cap off their careers by winning the race and agonized for many years before their victories at the track, hoping to one day complete their racing resumes. Tony Stewart has become today’s Earnhardt, having won many races on every kind of track, but failing to win in the 500, despite being a perennial contender.
The Brickyard 400 is huge. Around 200,000 come to the track when the Cup Series races there. Drivers all say that the Brickyard 400 is an important race for them to win. Much like Daytona, every Brickyard 400 has been won by an established driver in the sport who deserves to be in victory lane. Winners include Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Bill Elliott, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. The track is heralded and hosts one of the sports world’s biggest races, the Indy 500, every year. There is no doubt that the Brickyard 400 is one of the jewels in the crown of races every driver wants to win.
Some say that the hubbub that surrounds the Brickyard 400 every year has made the race bigger than the Daytona 500. Some also say that the increased presence of open-wheel drivers in the sport has heightened the importance of the Brickyard race, which likely is true. However, as important as Indianapolis is to the history and allure of motorsports, its biggest race, the Indy 500, does not even outdo the Coca Cola 600 at Lowe’s in the television ratings. The Brickyard 400 is the track’s second biggest race, but pales in comparison to winning the Coca-Cola 600, Bristol, Darlington or arguably even the All-Star Race. The Daytona 500 is bigger than all of those races combined, and definitely is prioritized by every driver above the Brickyard 400.