Speed Reading: NASCAR's top five races

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Ryan McGee

In my world I am surrounded by racing people.

Drivers, crew chiefs, tire changers, newspaper writers, TV producers... all working in and around the world of NASCAR 24-7-365.

And most of my correspondence with the outside world is with NASCAR fans. At the track, via e-mail, even at church and in the express lane at grocery store.

So it becomes easy for me to forget that there are people out there who don't know anything about NASCAR. They don't watch it on television. They don't listen to it on the radio. They don't even own a single piece of super tacky, see-it-two-blocks-before-it-gets-to-you NASCAR driver-branded attire.

When I do have the occasion to chat with the auto-uninitiated, the one question they always ask is the same, "What's the big deal about watching cars go around in circles?"

As much as I believe that we in the television industry — yes, that's my other job — do the best job possible to bring the live NASCAR experience into your homes each week, I have to be honest about something. There's no substitute for actually being there.

So my answer to that question about cars and their circular habit is always the same.

"If I could get you to one race, you would understand."

Track newbies are always blown away by three things once they finally make it to a Cup race.

  1. It's a hell of a lot louder than they thought it would be.
  2. There is a hell of a lot more people than they thought there would be.
  3. Those guys are nuts for driving that close together that fast... a hell of lot closer and faster than the now new fan thought they would be.

Which leads me to the second question I always get from the folks that have never been to a race.

"If I could only go to one race, which one would you suggest I hit?"

Well, people, now you can officially stop asking me! Because the top five races that all race fans must attend and why is directly ahead.

5. Nextel All-Star Challenge, May, Lowe's Motor Speedway
In recent years the event itself has left a little to be desired, but like any other all-star event, the game is secondary to the hype... and the hype alone is worth being there. When the lights come on at LMS, there is no more beautiful sight in all of motorsports, from the massive light towers in the turns to the swirling spotlights on the backstretch. Throw in fireworks, WWE-like driver introductions, along with the best sightlines in NASCAR, and you've got yourself Humpy Wheeler's Greatest Show on Asphalt.

As for those novice race fans, the short burst segments are perfect for folks that probably aren't ready for four hours of racing. And the small fields make it easy to follow the action.

4. Dodge Charger 500, May, Darlington Raceway
You go to Darlington for the same reason you go to Fenway Park or Lambeau Field. Yeah, sure, they might not be as nouveau fan-friendly as Petco Park or Reliant Stadium, but those sweet new stadiums don't come with ghosts.

Arrive at Darlington one day early, and make sure you visit the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Hall of Fame and Museum. Until NASCAR gets its new facility up and running, this is the true NASCAR Hall of Fame. Each year, the greats of the sport come to this little spot near the North Carolina-South Carolina border and honor the newest inductees.

And when the green flag drops on Saturday night, you can truly see how today's stars stack up to the greats of yesteryear. Seeing the Young Guns struggle to keep their cars off the Lady in Black's infamous walls is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Imagine how the guy inside the car the must feel.

3. Allstate 400 at The Brickyard, August, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The same rules from Darlington apply to Indy, only every thing is bigger and even more spell-binding. The track is twice as long, twice as old and its traditions are twice more legendary.

There is no more impressive vision in all of motorsports than looking down the frontstretch and watching the track taper off into the distance framed by a double-decker grandstand that sandwiches both sides of the racing surface. The crowds are so massive that they have been known the give drivers an eerie sense of tunnel vision as they barrel over the start-finish line.

If hearing "Back Home Again in Indiana" echo around the Brickyard doesn't give you chill bumps during the pre-race festivities, then go ahead and take your place with the rest of the cast of "Six Feet Under" because you have no pulse.

2. Daytona 500, February, Daytona International Speedway
To never attend the Daytona 500 is like deciding you don't ever want to go to the Super Bowl. Or a Space Shuttle launch. Or your own wedding.

A race week leading into the 500 typically contains all three. Dozens of couples are wed in Victory Lane each year. Until their recent slowdown, it was an annual event to see a Shuttle either streaking overhead into space or gliding over the 2.5-mile track on its way home.

As for the 500 itself, the Super Bowl can only hope to be as overwhelming as the Daytona 500. Two hundred thousand fans, millions of dollars on the line, dozens of celebrities strolling through the garage on race morning, hundreds of corporations wining and dining clients in the cavernous hospitality tents... and then there is the scene above the track.

"TV choppers, blimps, planes pulling banners, corporate jets coming in, traffic choppers," ace Lear Jet pilot Rusty Wallace counts them off. "I don't know how they keep it all straight up there."

Or how fans can keep it all straight on the ground.

1. Sharpie 500, August, Bristol Motor Speedway
Very few times does a place actually exceed the expectations that we put on it. Bristol, however, does not have that problem.

Never before has so much speed, noise, sheet metal, guts and humanity been jammed into such a small space. And don't mistake that word "humanity" for the gracious, careful concern for another human being. Because none of that is taking place on the world's fastest short track.

I mean humanity as in people stacked up on top of people stacked on top of people. Two hundred thousand fans filling grandstands that take root in a tiny little East Tennessee valley and then climb faster than Sir Edmund Hillary straight into the sky. It is as breath-taking empty as it is full.

And when all 43 engines roar to life, those aluminum bleachers shake, rattle and roll for the next 500 laps. Under the lights, gear shifts send flames belching from header pipes, and a bouncing car will send sparks flying into the windshield within brake-checking distance of its back bumper.

No aero, no hype, no B.S. Just good old-fashioned racing, the kind that would only take one lap to convince any NASCAR newbie to never ask that silly question again, "What's the big deal about cars going around in circles?"

Honorable Mention: Talladega, October (Big and bigger). Richmond, September (The Chase cut-off). Las Vegas, March (The Strip, baby). Martinsville, April (Ah, azaleas!).

Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images. He can be reached at his e-mail address:
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Busch Beat

Nextel Cup's Silly Season is grabbing the headlines — thanks Kurt and Jamie — but the Busch Series roster is going through a tumultuous time as well. Just this week, two drivers were informed that they needed to find other jobs. Tyler Walker was released from Akins Motorsports, replaced by Mike Wallace, and starting next week at California, Stanton Barrett will be replaced by ARCA ace T.J. Bell in the No. 36 Chevy.
  • McGee: Barrett hopes for Hollywood ending | Photos
  • Truck Stop

    Mike Skinner's NCTS victory at Bristol was his first since capturing the checkers at the Mesa Marin Raceway on October 16, 1996, a span of 3,235 days, nearly nine full years. During that time, he started a total of 306 races in NASCAR's top three divisions — 221 Winston/Nextel Cup, 36 Busch Series and 51 Truck Series events — all without a win. His new winless streak is 0.

    Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week

    The King won three times at Bristol, a miniscule total by Petty standards and nine behind Darrell Waltrip's career record of 12. But the rest of His Royal Fastness' Thunder Valley stats are second to none. He holds the all-time marks with 60 starts, 37 top tens, 23,815 laps run and is tied with D.W. atop the top-five heap with 26.

    Speed Mail of the Week

    Holly in Taylorsville, N.C. : "How could you leave Handsome Harry Gant off last week's list of top hot streaks? In 1991, he won four straight races in Winston Cup AND three straight in his Busch car. Aren't you from North Carolina? You be ashamed for forgetting Harry."

    Who's Hot & Who's Not

  • HOT/Tony Stewart: It will take a couple of massively disastrous weeks and perhaps even more to knock Smoke from the top rung of our Power Poll so with a 5th-place Michigan run he isn't budging. He has struggled at Bristol of late, with only one top 10 in his last seven races.

  • NOT HOT/Elliott Sadler: This is getting worse. Just seven weeks ago, Sadler was safely inside the top three in points, and The Chase seemed like a forgone conclusion. But four finishes of 32nd have him desperately clinging to 13th. The good news — he finished 2nd at Bristol back in April.

  • Fantasy lock /Kevin Harvick: The only surprise about Harvick's Bristol win on April 3 is that it hadn't come sooner. In nine Thunder Valley starts, he has scored seven top-10 finishes and five top fives. In 11 Busch Series races, he also owns four wins and eight top 10's

  • Fantasy schlock / Jeff Green: Green did sit on a Bristol pole back in 2001, leading 71 laps before wrecking and finishing 42nd. Unfortunately that's his career highlight at Thunder Valley. In 10 starts, he owns 0 top 10's and only one top-20 finish. Career average finish ¿ 29th.
  • Power Rankings
  • Tagged: Kurt Busch

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