Strictly Stock & Grand National
In 1949, NASCAR introduced the Strictly Stock division, after sanctioning Modified and Roadster division races in 1948. Eight races were run, on seven different dirt ovals and the Daytona Beach beach/street course.
The first NASCAR “Strictly Stock” race ever was held at Charlotte Speedway on June 19, 1949. The race was won by Jim Roper after Glenn Dunnaway was disqualified after the discovery of his altered rear springs. The first series champion was Red Byron. The division was renamed to “Grand National” for the 1950 season, reflecting NASCAR’s intent to make its part of the sport more professional and more prestigious. It would retain this name until 1971.
The 1949 Strictly Stock season is treated in NASCAR’s record books as the first season of GN/Cup history. Martinsville Speedway is the only track on the 1949 schedule that remains on the current schedule.
Rather than a fixed schedule of one race per weekend with most entrants appearing at every event, the Grand National schedule included over sixty events in some years, often with two or three on the same weekend, and occasionally with two races on the same day in different states.
In the early years, most GN races were held on dirt-surfaced short oval tracks (from under a quarter-mile to over a half-mile lap length) or dirt fairgrounds ovals (usually a half-mile to a mile lap length). 198 of the first 221 Grand National races were on dirt tracks. Darlington Raceway opened in 1950 and became the first completely paved track on the circuit over one mile long. In 1959, when Daytona International Speedway was opened, the schedule still had more races on dirt racetracks than paved ones. Through the 1960s, as superspeedways were built and old dirt tracks were paved, the number of dirt races was reduced.
The last NASCAR race on a dirt track was held on September 30, 1970 at the half-mile State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was won by Richard Petty in a Plymouth that had been sold by Petty Enterprises to Don Robertson and rented back for the race.
From 1972 through 2003, NASCAR’s premier series was called the Winston Cup Series. It was sponsored by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company cigarette brand Winston. In its later years, RJR’s sponsorship became more controversial in the wake of U.S. legislation that sharply restricted avenues for tobacco advertising.
The changes that resulted from RJR’s involvement, as well as the reduction of the schedule from 48 to 31 races a year, established 1972 as the beginning of NASCAR’s “modern era”. The season was made shorter, and the point system was modified several times in the next four years. Races on dirt tracks were removed from the schedule, as were oval track races shorter than 250 miles (402 kilometers). NASCAR’s founder, Bill France, Sr., turned over control of NASCAR to his oldest son, Bill France Jr.. In August 1974, France Jr. asked series publicist Bob Latford to design a point system with equal points awarded for all races regardless of length or prize money. This system ensured that the top drivers had to run all the races to become series champion. It was used without change from 1975 until the Chase for the Championship was instituted for 2004.
Since 1982, the Daytona 500 has been the first non-exhibition race of the year.
ABC Sports aired partial or full live telecasts of Grand National races from Talladega, North Wilkesboro, Darlington, Charlotte, and Nashville in 1970. These events were less exciting than many GN races, and ABC abandoned live coverage. Races were instead broadcast, delayed and edited, on the ABC sports variety show Wide World of Sports.
In 1979, the Daytona 500 became the first stock car race that was nationally televised from flag to flag on CBS. The leaders going into the last lap, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, wrecked on the backstretch while dicing for the lead, allowing Richard Petty to pass them both and win the race. Immediately, Yarborough, Allison, and Allison’s brother Bobby were engaged in a fistfight on national television. This underlined the drama and emotion of the sport and increased its broadcast marketability. Luckily for NASCAR, the race coincided with a major snowstorm along the United States’ eastern seaboard, successfully introducing much of the captive audience to the sport.
Starting in 1981, an awards banquet has been held the first Friday evening in December, at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, initially in the Starlight Roof. In 1985, the ceremony was moved to the much larger Grand Ballroom, where it would be held until 2001. In 2001, the banquet portion was dropped in favor of a simpler awards ceremony. In 2002, the awards ceremony was moved to the Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center. In 2003, the banquet format returned, as the ceremony moved back to the Waldorf’s Grand Ballroom.
In 1985 Winston introduced a new award program called the Winston Million. From 1985 to 1997, any driver who won three of the four most prestigious races in the series was given $1 million. This prize was only won twice during its existence. Bill Elliott won in 1985 and Jeff Gordon won in 1997. It was replaced with a similar program, the Winston No Bull 5, in 1998 which awarded $1 million to any driver that won a prestigious race after finishing in the top five of the most previous prestigious race.
The series underwent a large boom in popularity in the 1990s. In 1994, the NASCAR held the first Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Between 1997 and 1998, the winner’s prize money for the Daytona 500 tripled. This coincided with a decline of popularity in American Championship Car Racing.
In 1999, NASCAR agreed to a new broadcasting agreement with Fox Broadcasting, Turner Broadcasting, and NBC. This particular television contract, signed for eight years for Fox and six years for NBC and Turner, was valued at $2.4 billion.
NEXTEL & Sprint Cup
In 2003, RJR dropped its sponsorship of the top series, and NASCAR obtained a sponsorship from NEXTEL, a telecommunications company. In 2004, the series became known as the NEXTEL Cup Series.
The 2005 merger between Sprint and NEXTEL resulted in the cup series being renamed the Sprint Cup, beginning with the 2008 season.
The Sprint Cup trophy is designed by Tiffany & Co., and is silver with a pair of checkered flags in flight.
By 2009 it has become clear that the popularity boom of the 1990s was over. Television ratings through the start of the 21st century had been more or less stagnant. Long time fans feel the series had lost its traditional appeal by abandoning venues in the Southeastern United States in favor of new markets. There is discontent over Toyota’s presence in the series. NASCAR CEO, Brian France, has become a prime target for criticism among fans
Chase for the Championship
When NEXTEL took over NASCAR’s premier sponsorship for the 2004 season, the formula for declaring a series champion was rewritten using the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series as a model to develop major changes in scoring. After the first 26 races, a cut is made, with the twelve highest drivers and teams (plus ties) placed in the Chase for the Championship (or simply “The Chase”). The Chase participants have their points increased to a level mathematically unattainable by anyone outside this field (roughly 1800 points ahead of the first driver outside of the Chase). Each driver who makes the Chase will receive 5,000 points, plus 10 additional points for each race he won during the first 26 races. Race layouts remain the same and points are scored the same way in the final 10 races. Whoever leads in points after the 36th race is declared the Sprint Cup champion.
To encourage continued competition among all drivers, a number of awards are given to drivers finishing outside the Chase. The highest finishing non-Chase driver (in 2007, 13th place at the end of the season) is awarded a bonus (approximately $1 million) and a position on stage at the postseason awards banquet. The awards banquet now focuses solely on the Chase with all of the series’ sponsored and contingency awards were moved to a luncheon at Cipriani the day before the banquet.
This playoff system was implemented primarily to make the points race more competitive late in the season, and indirectly, to increase television ratings during the NFL season, which starts around the same time as the Chase begins. Furthermore, the Chase also forces teams to perform at their best during all three stages of the season—the first half of the regular season, the second half of the regular season, and the Chase.
Previously, the champion may have been decided before the last race (or even several races before the end of the season) because it was mathematically impossible for any other driver to gain enough points to overtake the leader. Although this is still mathematically possible going into the last two events, it has yet to occur.
From 2004-2006 the Chase was shown in the United States on NBC and TNT. From 2007-2009, ESPN on ABC telecast all ten races of the Chase as part of the new NASCAR television contracts that came in effect. In 2010, only the night race at Charlotte Motor Speedway aired on ABC, all other races aired on ESPN.