This introduction guide to NASCAR will provide you with the knowledge you need to become an expert – fast. Keep reading to become a pro by the time the black and white checkered flag is thrown.
Have you been interested in getting into NASCAR, but aren’t sure where to start? As the sport (and yes, NASCAR is a sport, but more on that later) continues trying to expand its fan base around the US, more and more people are becoming interested in the sport.
But what do you need to know to enjoy the most popular motorsport in the country?
Ready to learn NASCAR? Let’s start with the basics.
What is NASCAR? NASCAR, or the National Association of Stock Car Racing, is a professional motorsport organization featuring highly modified, purpose-built stock cars.
When is NASCAR season? The season takes place from February through November and features around 30 regular races followed by 10 playoff races.
In the modern NASCAR era, there are three different series drivers can compete in. Those divisions are the Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Craftsman Truck Series.
IS NASCAR A SPORT?
For those who don’t know much about NASCAR, this is probably a big question on your mind. Is NASCAR a sport? While some say no, the experts say yes.
Just as American football doesn’t look anything like European football, NASCAR may not look like some of the other sports you watch. After all, it’s just a person sitting in a car steering the wheel, right? Wrong.
In addition to the strategy and quick thinking needed to be a successful NASCAR driver, racers also need to have mental and physical strength. For one, NASCAR drivers need to be able to handle and control cars that weigh around 3,000 pounds at incredibly high speeds. And they do this in vehicles that can reach extreme temperatures, meaning their stamina and focus must be on point at all times.
And like any sport, there are a set of rules and regulations participants must follow, and there are distinct events held to compete against others.
To understand the NASCAR so many people know and love today, we must look back on the sport’s 75-year history.
HOW DID NASCAR START?
Before looking at the official formation of stock car auto racing, it’s important to know the history behind it. It was in November of 1895 that the first automobile race in the US took place in the city of Chicago, Illinois.
As you’ll learn below, NASCAR recently honored this very race at the inaugural Chicago Street Race in July of 2023.
WHO FOUNDED NASCAR?
For years after that race, there were a number of ad-hoc leagues and races for drivers to compete in, but there wasn’t anything unifying the groups. It wasn’t until early 1947 – 52 years after that cold day in Chicago – that racer Bill France decided to change that by founding NASCAR.
What was first the National Championship Stock Car Circuit (NCSCC) soon became the National Stock Car Racing Association (NASCAR), thanks to Red Vogt’s name suggestion. The Association became official on February 21, 1948.
WHERE WAS THE FIRST NASCAR RACE?
Originally, France and his cohorts decided on three distinct divisions: The Strictly Stock, Modified and Roadster, with Strictly Stock being the most popular, and eventually, the most elite.
The first official NASCAR racing competition took place on February 15, 1948, at the Daytona Beach Road Course. Today, Daytona International Raceway is one of the most well-known tracks in the country. The first official Strictly Stock NASCAR race took place on June 9, 1949, at Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina.
WHO INVENTED THE FIRST NASCAR VEHICLE?
The first car used for NASCAR races was a 1939 Ford coupe. Now considered the “pre-Generation 1 model,” this car was chosen out of necessity; with shortages after World War II, older cars were the only ones available.
Legendary mechanic, Red Vogt, teamed up with driver Red Byron and Hall of Famer Raymond Park to modify the Ford to become the first official stock car. It was in that very car Red Byron won the first ever NASCAR race at Daytona.
HOW IS NASCAR CELEBRATING ITS 75TH SEASON?
Now, 75 years since Red Byron became the first NASCAR champion, the organization is celebrating its history as well as its hopeful future. And they are pulling out the stops.
As mentioned above, the first-ever Chicago Street Race was held on the Fourth of July weekend of 2023. It was a way to honor the past and look to the future; after all, Chicago may have been the location of the first street race in the US, but it’s certainly not the most popular NASCAR area anymore.
So, for 75 years, NASCAR decided to bring car racing back to its home.
The organization also added 25 new drivers to their Greatest Drivers of All Time list, which honors the best of the best for their contributions to the sport.
If you’re asking yourself, “how does NASCAR work?” You’ve come to the right place. The information in this section will get you up to speed on the basic rules and regulations of NASCAR.
RACE FORMAT & SAFETY
There are four different types of tracks NASCAR drivers may compete on, but they all must follow some general rules to ensure the safety of the drivers and fans. Drivers can compete on short tracks, intermediate ovals, superspeedways and road courses. Up to 40 cars may participate in any given Cup Series race.
Part of the excitement of NASCAR is the variation each race has. Some of the variations include the number of miles raced, number of times around the track, the banking of curves, and the material of the tracks.
A change made in recent years is that races are split into at least three stages (the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte has four). There are no regulations around how the stages are split, but typically the first two stages take up about half the race.
Most NASCAR tracks are equipped with SAFER walls, also known as the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier system. The goal of these retaining walls is to absorb as much energy from a crash as possible, to reduce injuries for drivers.
2023 RACE PROCEDURES
Each week, drivers must practice and qualify to determine their starting position in the official race. Depending on the track, there are slightly different rules for qualifying. The basic process has two rounds, in which drivers have one timed lap per round.
After the first round of 40, the top 10 fastest qualifiers will go up against each other in the second round to determine the order in which they will start the race. The remaining drivers are assigned a spot based on their first-round qualifying lap.
Some courses have specific qualifying rules that can be found here.
NASCAR FLAG SYSTEM
Before digging deeper into the rules, it’s helpful to know what each of the flags in NASCAR represent. Here are the most common flags you need to know and what they indicate during a race.
- Green Flag: Indicates a race has started or is restarting
- Green and White Checkered Flag: Signals the end of a race stage
- Yellow Flag: Caution flag to indicate a hazard, accident or poor weather on the track
- Red Flag: Indicates the stoppage of a race, typically due to large accidents or inclement weather
- White Flag: One lap remaining in race
- Black Flag: Signals driver to pit immediately, typically after breaking rules or creating dangerous conditions for themselves of other racers
- Blue Flag with Yellow Stripe: Warning drivers of faster cars approaching behind
- Black and White Checkered Flag: Indicates a race is over
CAUTIONS AND RESTARTS
As soon as a caution flag is thrown, yellow caution lights appear around the track to alert drivers of the hazard. Immediately after the yellow flag, the field and driver positions are frozen, and scoring is stopped until the restart. Cars must slow down to match the pace car’s speed while the caution is sorted. Drivers then restart the race in the position they finished the last full lap in.
A new rule called the Choose Rule was implemented in the top three NASCAR leagues during the 2020 season. This rule allows for drivers to have more of a say into where they are placed during double-file restarts. The racer with the higher position can choose whether to restart on the insider or outside of the track (the low line or high line) during a restart.
See the rule in action:
PIT ROAD REQUIREMENTS
Drivers pit multiple times during a race to refuel and replace tires to maximize car efficiency. As soon as a caution is thrown, though, the pitlane is immediately closed until the course is deemed safe and drivers have slowed down to the pace speed.
Cars can pit as many times as they would like, at the expense of positions on the field. Teams can have five pit members working on the car at one time: two tire changers, one tire carrier, a jackman and a gas filler.
Pitstops can usually be accomplished in less than 20 seconds.
DRIVER AND CAR REQUIREMENTS
The requirements for drivers and their cars are different depending on which series they are competing in. The car’s number must be displayed on all the doors of the racing car and the roof for spotters and fan participation. In the current NASCAR car regulations, the front of the car and rear bumper must replicate the decal specs of the manufacturer.
Over NASCAR’s 75-year history, there have been seven iterations of official NASCAR cars. Since 2022, drivers have been driving a redesigned car that better resembles the stock cars they are based on, the Next Gen NASCAR car.
No two cars in the same race may display the same number, and there are strict requirements about the exterior design and placement of sponsorship decals.
Cup Series drivers must use the same car during all parts of a race weekend, from practice and qualifying rounds to the actual race. In general, replacing engines and transmission changes during race weekends are prohibited, except for at road courses and Pocono Raceway for safety reasons.
In the top division, teams are limited to the number of times they can replace a car’s engine over a season. The components in cars used in the NASCAR Xfinity series and Truck Series need to last two race weekends.
Driver changes can be made, but there are restrictions around when and how this can be done.
POSSIBLE RACE PENALTIES
It’s important for drivers and teams to follow the guidelines set out by NASCAR to avoid incurring penalties. The three main types of penalties are pre-race, in-race and post-race. Depending on the level of severity, penalties can either fall under L1 or L2.
L1 penalties lead to a point deduction between 10 and 40 points, a single pit crew suspension for up to three races and fines ranging from $25,000 and $75,000.
Level 2 penalties deduct at least 75 points from a driver, a six-race single crew suspension and fines ranging from $100 to $200K. Most of the pre-race and in-race penalties result in L1 consequences.
NASCAR officials check cars before the qualifying round and before the race, which is when these pre-race violations would occur. Failing inspections is the most common way to gain a pre-race penalty.
According to NASCAR, most of the in-race penalties occur on pit road. Whether a driver is going too fast on pit road, or a pit crew member goes over the wall too early, teams will be penalized at varying levels.
If a penalty comes during a caution (yellow flag, remember), the driver must fall to the back of the field. Under green, the driver must pass through pit road. If a black flag is thrown, the driver must pit and address the issues sparking the flag.
A new rule NASCAR has been trying out is the ten-minute crash clock. If a car is damaged in-race, it must be repaired and back on the track within ten minutes, or else will be disqualified from the race.
Teams can be penalized after the race is over and before an official winner has been announced for several reasons, and lead to either a fine or race disqualification.
As mentioned earlier, there are three different series in NASCAR with varying levels of competition and difficulty. The Cup Series is the most elite division, followed by the Xfinity Series and then the Craftsman Truck Series.
The divisions have three main differences:
- Level of difficulty
- Car specifications/regulations
- Season progression/playoff format
As the most intense series, the NASCAR Cup Series is the main stage for the best racers in the sport. The cars regulated for this series go faster and for longer than the cars in the Xfinity Series, and therefore have different manufacturing regulations. The Next Gen car can reach over 200 mph and can only be manufactured by Ford, Cheverolet and Toyota.
Here’s a look at the NASCAR Cup Series champions from the past four years:
2022: Joey Logano
2021: Kyle Larson
2020: Chase Elliott
2019: Kyle Busch
Other active drivers with a championship under their belt include Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
Most of the drivers in the Cup Series came from either the Xfinity Series or the Craftsman Truck Series, and sometimes both. Xfinity Series racers compete at the same tracks as the Cup Series, but typically for fewer laps. As you’ll see from the list of previous Xfinity Series winners below, three out of the four drivers are now some of the most well-known drivers in the Cup Series.
2022: Ty Gibbs (Now Cup Series)
2021: Daniel Hemric
2020: Austin Cindric (Now Cup Series)
2019: Tyler Reddick (Now Cup Series)
CRAFTSMAN TRUCK SERIES
Of the three divisions, the Craftsman Truck Series is the most unique, mainly due to the types of cars being driven. In this division, rather than traditional race cars, the competitors race modified pickup trucks. In recent years, the series has expanded from racing on short tracks to also competing on speedways.
The top 10 drivers from the season make it to the Truck Series playoffs. Here are the most recent winners from the series:
2022: Zane Smith
2021: Ben Rhodes
2020: Sheldon Creed
2019: Matt Crafton
HOW DOES NASCAR PLAYOFFS WORK?
The Cup Series consists of around 30 regular season races each year, followed by a relatively new system for the playoffs. After the regular season concludes at the end of August, a regular season champion is crowned, before moving on to the Round of 16 along with 15 other race winners or top point-getters.
The top 16 drivers from the regular season compete against one another in elimination round style until the final four drivers compete for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship. The playoffs for both the lower two divisions are scaled back compared to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, with only the top 12 drivers making it out of the regular season for the Xfinity Series, and 10 for the Truck Series.
For more details on the new playoff format for the sport and how to keep up this playoff season, check out this guide to NASCAR playoffs.
Whether you’re a longtime NASCAR fan or just getting into the sport, you’ve most likely heard of some of the drivers that have impacted the sport most. Some of the most famous drivers of all time include:
Known as “the King,” Richard Petty was an extremely foundational figure in the sport. He competed in what is now the Cup Series from 1958-1992. He was the first (but not the last) driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship seven times and accumulated a record 200 race wins throughout his career. He once won 27 races in a single season.
DALE EARNHARDT SR.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. is famous for not only his skill on the track, but also the accident on the track that ultimately took his life. Earnhardt raced from 1975-2001, winning 76 races over his career. In his second full season in 1980, he won his first championship title, and managed to win six more before his death in 2001 (tying him with Petty and Jimmie Johnson). He won at Daytona International Speedway a record 34 times and was a racer fans loved to cheer on.
It was at that same track, the Daytona International Speedway, that a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 took the life of one of the most beloved drivers in the sport. His death shined a light on the need for safety, which NASCAR has taken even more seriously since that moment. And since that day, there has not been another death in a NASCAR race.
You can read more about the tragic event and its aftermath here.
The third driver to win a record seven championships, five of which were consecutive, is Jimmie Johnson, who raced from 2001-2023. He has won multiple races at each of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events: Daytona 500 (2), Brickyard 400 (4), Coca-Cola 600 (4), Southern 500 (2) and four All-Star Race wins. Jimmie was involved in the sport during a time of much change, but he was constantly on top of the leaderboards.
It’s no surprise he was named one of NASCAR’s Top 75 Drivers of all time in 2023.
NASCAR RACING FAMILIES
For many of the best drivers, the need for speed runs in the family. There are a number of NASCAR drivers, past and present, who have family members also involved in the sport. Some of these families have continued their legacy not only with new drivers entering the sport, but also by becoming team owners or investors.
Here are some of the most well-known NASCAR families. Names in bold are currently active:
Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Kyle Petty (father-son-son)
Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. (father-son)
Bill Elliott, Chase Elliott (father-son)
Rusty Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace (brothers)
Buck Baker, Buddy Baker (father-son)
Dave Blaney, Ryan Blaney (father-son)
Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch (brothers)
And for more information on the 2023 Cup Series drivers competing for the championship, check out NASCAR’s official roster here.
DIVERSITY IN NASCAR
Over NASCAR’s history, more than 125 women have qualified and started races in one of the top NASCAR series. And believe it or not, all but two of the female NASCAR drivers that have competed in the Cup Series did so in the 20th century. Shawna Robinson and Danica Patrick are the only two female racers in the Cup Series since 2000.
As NASCAR continues to try and diversify the sport, it’s promising to see there are many more women currently competing in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, such as Hailie Deegan and Toni Breidinger. But there is much more work to be done to get more women and other underrepresented groups into the sport.
Similarly, there are very few People of Color competing in the top divisions of the sport. Wendell Scott was the first Black driver to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series, and he surely left his mark. He won at Jacksonville Speedway Park back in 1963, despite the racial discrimination and threats he was receiving from fans and drivers alike.
Even this historical moment was undercut by racism, however, as the victory was initially given to another racer until Scott was recognized as the winner a month later.
Between then and 2023, only seven other Black drivers have competed in the top NASCAR division. One of these drivers is Bubba Wallace, who clinched a spot in the 2023 Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his career. In addition to becoming a star on the track, Wallace has been working hard to increase equity and diversity in the sport.
Wallace got into the series with the help of a program called Drive for Diversity, which aims to get more women and People of Color into the sport, both behind the wheel and in the pit. Cup Series drivers Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez are also graduates from the program.
In order to compete at the Cup Series level, drivers must have certain prerequisites. Interestingly, a state provided driver’s license is not required, but a NASCAR specific license is. Drivers attain NASCAR licenses at lower levels of competition before moving up to the Cup level, and require:
- Racing experience at lower levels
- Medical evaluations
- Passing marks on a driver’s test
- Personal references
Licenses cost around $2,000 and must be renewed annually. Which is a lot of money.
HOW MUCH DOES A NASCAR DRIVER MAKE?
Those costs pay off for the elite drivers that make it to the big leagues. Drivers make money from a number of sources, including team commitments, sponsorship deals, endorsements and of course purse money for winning races.
In 2020, the top 10 highest paid Cup Series drivers made between 7 and 18 million dollars. The highest paid driver in 2020 was 2019 Cup Series Champion, Kyle Busch.
HOW TO GET INTO NASCAR?
One of the most common questions about the sport is how to become a NASCAR driver. And while it’s certainly not as accessible of a sport as baseball or soccer are, the association is working toward expanding access. Here are some of the most common ways to get into the NASCAR scene.
Start with Karting: Most of the young racers in the sport today started their careers in go-karts. These competitive karting leagues help younger drivers learn to handle a vehicle and the strategy around the competition. As drivers get older, they move to larger vehicles with more power and speed.
Attend NASCAR Driving Schools: Once a driver has chosen NASCAR out of the variety of auto racing sports, a driving program is a good way to get deeper into the sport.
Expand Your Network: With the practice and connections gained from NASCAR sanctioned driving programs, racers can begin joining regional racing series and seeking sponsorships.
Join a Team: Being on a team can make a huge difference in getting to the top NASCAR divisions.
With this guide, you’re more than ready for the next race weekend. Impress your friends, family and everyone else with your NASCAR expertise, thanks to this Insider Guide to NASCAR.
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