The Daytona 500, World 600, Southern 500 and Winston 500 used to be considered the crown jewels of NASCAR — the four majors in the same way as golf and tennis. In recent years, the Brickyard 400 and the Bristol Night Race have emerged as potential crown jewel candidates.
But in today’s NASCAR culture of playoffs and win-and-you’re-in, the question that has arisen is: Do these races still mean what they once did or are they just like every other race? Mark Kristl and Clayton Caldwell debate.
Yes, the Crown Jewels Still Matter
We can debate the number of crown jewels in NASCAR, but they still matter. There are three crown jewels remaining in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Additionally, based on its current trajectory, the Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway is on its way to becoming a crown jewel race for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Why do they still matter? After all, they’re all worth the same amount of points. Yes, but winning one of those three races bolsters a driver’s resume. Derrike Cope largely marketed himself as the 1990 Daytona 500 winner. Dale Earnhardt won seven Cup Series championships, but his 0-19 streak in the Daytona 500 stung yearly. When he finally won it in 1998, it was a grand moment in his illustrious career.
More recently, two drivers come to mind who’ve won crown jewel races. Regan Smith won the 2011 Southern 500. Despite the fact the Southern 500 didn’t take place on Labor Day weekend, Smith will forever be able to brag he won the Southern 500.
The other driver who comes to mind is Martin Truex Jr. He now has won the Coca-Cola 600 twice, and both victories were followed by an enormous celebration. Although winning is always celebrated in NASCAR, Truex and his team celebrated more partially because they won the Coca-Cola 600 — they won a NASCAR crown jewel.
So what makes these races crown jewels as compared to a race at another race track, like my NASCAR home track Chicagoland Speedway?
The Daytona 500 in many ways is the Super Bowl for NASCAR. It has hype, there are events the week before to generate interest in the Daytona 500 and it’s known worldwide. The Daytona 500 has close racing, wrecks and plenty of excitement to entice people to watch it. Even casual fans turn in to watch the Daytona 500. The only oddity? NASCAR starts its season with its Super Bowl.
The Coca-Cola 600 takes place at Charlotte, and it is a NASCAR crown jewel. It takes place the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and completes the racing triple-header of the Grand Prix in Monaco and the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Because of the Memorial Day weekend date, the Coca-Cola 600 is steeped in patriotism, specifically honoring the military. All teams run with a fallen service member’s name on the windshield of the car. A large conglomerate of service members attend the Coca-Cola 600, and NASCAR rolls out the red carpet to thank them.
This season, at the end of the second stage, all drivers pulled their cars onto pit road and turned off the engines. Bringing out the flag of remembrance for the fallen service members, the Charlotte Motor Speedway public address announcer asked everyone to take a moment of silence. Going from engines running at 180 miles per hour to complete silence left quite an impression on viewers, fans and those at the track.
The Coca-Cola 600 is also a crown jewel because of the race itself. 600 miles is the longest distance in any NASCAR series, so it is an endurance race for drivers, pit crews and even the cars themselves. The race begins in the late afternoon, but by the wave of the checkered flag, it is dark outside. The ever-changing track conditions challenge teams and drivers to both race each other as well as the track.
The Coca-Cola 600 takes place at Charlotte, which, for an overwhelming amount of teams, is minutes away from their race shops. So many family and friends of the team, including employees at the race shop, attend the Coca-Cola 600. Charlotte also is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The two-week stretch at Charlotte for the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 is a tourist trip for NASCAR fans.
Lastly, the Southern 500 takes place at arguably the most difficult track to compete on in NASCAR. Darlington Raceway is rightfully nicknamed The Track Too Tough to Tame. Drivers spend more time racing the track than each other. One simple mistake can result in a driver slapping the wall, earning a Darlington stripe. If you win the Southern 500, you’ve earned it and you prove you belong in the Cup Series.
The Southern 500 reclaimed some of its glory when NASCAR added a throwback element to the track. Teams now work with sponsors to create schemes to pay homage to past legends in NASCAR and motorsports in general. This concept hit a home run with fans when teams honored past legends, drivers who fans grew up cheering for.
Make no mistake about it, the NASCAR crown jewel races are alive and well. When voters are on the fence as to whether or not to vote in a player in another professional sport, the playoff resume makes a difference. In NASCAR, winning a crown jewel race makes a difference. –Mark Kristl
The Playoffs Have Stolen The Luster
The crown jewel events in NASCAR are still significant, but they are nowhere near where they were before. There are several reasons for why the crown jewel events are not as significant as they once were, but I’ll start with the NASCAR playoffs.
From the start of the season, the focus is on the NASCAR playoffs. When we get into the playoffs, that’s when the intensity heightens and teams are at their best. That’s what everyone races for in the regular season. NASCAR has built playoff points into its points system as a way to intensify the playoffs and the playoff picture. It’s all about the playoffs.
Prior to the 2004 season, when NASCAR introduced the playoffs, every race paid the same amount of points. A race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March paid the same amount as a race at Atlanta in November. There were only four races that stood out, the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the World/Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. They were the crown jewel events.
Those races became the four races everyone wanted to win. It was partially because of the money aspect. At times there were a million dollars at stake for a driver who won three of the four ‘crown jewel’ races. However, those races also had so much history behind them, which brings me to point number two.
The Daytona 500 is and always will be NASCAR’s biggest race. There’s no doubt about that. It stands out above all the other races on the schedule, but it’s helped because it’s the first race of the year and it kicks off NASCAR’s season. Daytona’s prestige will never go away.
The Coca-Cola 600 is a bit different though. It is still a fun race, but stages and the durability of the racecars have hurt that race a bit. It used to be fun to watch which teams and drivers could last 600 miles. Now, all that has changed. Hardly ever do you see someone fall out of a race for a mechanical problem anymore. That’s what the 600 had going for it, and NASCAR’s rules have hurt it immensely.
The Southern 500 is still a fun event but its history is tarnished. When NASCAR moved the Southern 500 off of Labor Day Weekend, they virtually killed the prestige and luster that went with that race. Even though they eventually did the right thing by bringing the race back to its traditional date, it’s still got a long way to go to get back to where it was. I also think the fact that it’s a night race hurts the Southern 500. It doesn’t feel like the same event. Throwback Weekend has been the best thing NASCAR has done in the last 20 years, and without it, no one would think the Southern 500 as special and that’s a shame.
As for the fourth crown jewel event, I don’t even know what it is anymore. The Winston 500 is no more. Winston is long gone, and Talladega Superspeedway has become just another race. So what race could replace it? That’s up for debate, which is part of the problem. Is it the Bristol Night Race? I am not so sure anymore. I believe when Bristol was at its peak and there were 150,000 people in the stands, that race was in the conversation. However, that’s not the case anymore.
Is it Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Brickyard 400? Before the ‘tire debacle,’ that race had a leg to stand on. Now, Indianapolis has become a bore-fest and a race that lacks intensity. No one shows up to the race anymore. Just because it’s a historic racetrack doesn’t mean it’s a NASCAR crown jewel event. Do we even have four crown jewel events anymore? I don’t think so.
In the end, the 10-race playoff stands out above the rest of the schedule and is marketed throughout the year as ultra-special. It has really taken the focus off the other 26 races on the schedule, including the four (or three) crown jewel events. Plus, NASCAR’s progression and disregard for history and tradition has hurt the crown jewel events as well. They are not what they used to be. -Clayton Caldwell