Any sport with strong regional roots is bound to have its own set of strong traditions. NASCAR is, of course, no exception to this, with its predominantly Southern flavor still shining through even as the sport has expanded, both nationally and internationally.
You would be hard-pressed to come up with a NASCAR event that doesn't have at least a few traditions. They may be universal to every event, or they may be special to the track itself, such as a race date or a winner's trophy. They all, however, play a part in making the sport what it is.
Out of all of these traditions, it's hard to choose the 10 best, but we'll certainly try.
It only makes sense to start this list at the beginning, in this case the beginning of every race, and that's where pre-race ceremonies come in. This is where the values of the "traditional" NASCAR fan come into play: A salute to the military, an invocation and the national anthem, before the grand marshal calls on the drivers to start their engines.
Throughout the past few decades, even as the NASCAR landscape has changed, this is the one thing that has pretty much remained constant.
The late Alan Kulwicki started the tradition of the "Polish" victory lap when he saluted a crowd by doing a clockwise victory lap after winning his first race. (The "Polish" refers to Kulwicki's ancestry.) Named after him as it may be, Kulwicki only did two Polish victory laps in his entire career, the other coming after his 1992 Winston Cup championship. He had initially wanted to do so only after his first victory, but made an exception after winning his only title.
When Kulwicki perished in a plane crash in 1993, many drivers honored him and the late Davey Allison throughout the season by performing the laps. Other famous instances came in 2001, when Kevin Harvick held three fingers out his window to honor the late Dale Earnhardt after winning in Earnhardt's car at Atlanta. Dale Earnhardt Jr. waving an American flag at Dover in the first Cup race after 9/11 is still one of NASCAR's most iconic images.
The Budweiser Duel at Daytona has been a part of qualifying for the Daytona 500 since the race's inception in 1959. Originally a pair of 100-mile races to set the starting field, one setting the inside of each row and the other setting the outside, they were expanded to 125 miles in 1969 and 150 miles in 2005.
The Duels serve as a way for drivers to get back into the groove of racing, especially at the challenging restrictor plate track that is Daytona. After an eight-year respite from the traditional format, due to locked-in starting positions in Cup events, the Duels also determine who makes and misses the Daytona 500 (to a far more significant extent than they did from 2005-12). In short, race poorly on Thursday, and you won't race on Sunday.
One of the coolest parts of the Sprint All-Star Showdown is the extensive introduction ceremony. The entire crew of each participating driver is identified, much in the same way that drivers are introduced at typical race events.
But if Charlotte's pit crew intros are cool, Bristol's driver intros take the cake. Drivers pick their own songs, which are usually kept secret, to come out to, and then address the crowd assembled. These usually produce some of the funniest moments of the season, from Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers sending each other out to "The Thong Song" and "I Feel Like A Woman" (respectively), to Denny Hamlin dancing his way onto the track.
Bristol's driver introductions are, especially in the fall, only the prelude to one of the coolest races on the schedule: 500 laps on a half-mile bullring under the lights.
The finishes of the summer Bristol race are often the track's most famous. Twice, in both 1995 and 1999, Dale Earnhardt wrecked Terry Labonte at the finish of a race—the first time coming after the checkered flag and the second coming on the final lap. In 2008, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards got into one another after Edwards took the checkered flag, with Edwards eventually spinning Busch on the victory lap.
Though the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is better known for its open-wheel races than its NASCAR events, the tradition of kissing the start/finish line actually came from NASCAR.
When Dale Jarrett won the Brickyard 400 in 1996, he and crew chief Todd Parrott delivered the famous kiss to the bricks for the first time. Parrott, now the crew chief for Aric Almirola, came up with the idea, which has since caught on in both NASCAR and IndyCar circles. Every NASCAR driver to win at Indy since Jarrett has kissed the bricks. Jimmie Johnson did it last year, while American driver Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 is an instance of IndyCar drivers following the tradition.
It's hard to conceptualize a larger trophy than a grandfather clock. It's even harder still to think of it as the trophy for winning at one of the smallest tracks on the NASCAR schedule. But that's what Martinsville Speedway awards to its race winners—a $10,000 piece of furniture.
The late H. Clay Earles, founder of the track, first awarded the trophy in 1964 as an homage to the local furniture industry. The tradition has carried on to this day, with some especially prolific drivers (such as 11-time winner Darrell Waltrip) pawning off trophies to family, friends, and teammates.
The month of May may be more prestigious in IndyCar, but NASCAR's answer to it still holds its own special mystique. After racing at Darlington on Mother's Day weekend (more on that later), the series heads to Charlotte for a pair of events: the non-points Sprint All-Star Showdown, and the points-paying Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the season.
These races are special for numerous reasons. With most NASCAR teams still based out of Charlotte, the two weeks serve as a homecoming. And the 600-mile race on Memorial Day weekend serves as a fitting cap for what can only be called "the race fan's Christmas," as Formula 1 begins the day in Monaco and the Indianapolis 500 runs shortly before NASCAR.
The Southern 500 as a Labor Day weekend tradition may no longer exist, but the 500-mile race has found new life as a staple of the previously vacant Mother's Day weekend. Darlington's lone race date runs on that Saturday night, as it has since 2005.
Darlington's mystique stretches long beyond its prestigious race dates, however. The track hosted NASCAR's first 500-mile races, even before the Daytona 500, and its unique egg shape (the result of a nearby minnow pond) presents one of the greatest challenges on the schedule.
Most sports end their season with their most prestigious events. NASCAR, however, starts its season with its crown jewel.
The Daytona 500 didn't actually start the Cup season until 1982, as races at the now-closed Riverside and the aforementioned Budweiser Duels used to count for points. But ever since, the Great American Race has served as an epic season opener, a race that both makes careers (Richard Petty won a record seven of them) and leaves them with gaping holes (Tony Stewart still hasn't won it).
From the inaugural race in 1959, which saw Lee Petty win in a photo finish that took three days to decipher, to Jimmie Johnson's post-victory Harlem Shake this year, and everything in between, the Daytona 500 has seen it all. Fights, family triumph, and even a flying seagull have all contributed towards making the race what it is: NASCAR's finest tradition.
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