NASCAR’s Roaring Start
After more than six decades, the Daytona 500 remains one of the nation’s great sports events. Here’s why to tune in this year
photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
NASCAR has long been a fixture in America’s collective sports consciousness, particularly in the South, where stock car racing first took off. And while tradition plays a big role in the races it oversees, NASCAR is widening its reach this year, making way for a season unlike any other. For starters, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series will introduce three new racetracks (Circuit of the Americas, Nashville Superspeedway, and Road America) to the mix—the most significant venue expansion since 1969. This year’s schedule will also feature an all-new dirt race at the Bristol Motor Speedway, and a new road course event at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And with new events scheduled in Nashville and Austin, Texas, Southern devotees will be closer to the action than ever—but even those watching from home can get into the spirit.
While the season spans thirty-eight races over ten months, one event kicks it all off, captivating spectators across the nation and beyond. Every February since 1959, fans have flocked to Daytona Beach, Florida, to take in the storied DAYTONA 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious (and arguably most highly anticipated) event. Aptly dubbed the “Great American Race,” the event has transcended its humble stock-car roots to become one of the country’s most prominent cultural touchstones. Thanks to NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols, the 2021 race is officially a go, and for those not among the limited number admitted to the stands at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, this year’s race offers plenty of reasons to tune in—even if you’re a first-timer.
photo: ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images
The Rich History
Daytona Beach has always been a hub of speed. Legend has it that in 1903, two locals settled a dispute over who had the fastest horseless carriage with a race right there on the sand. Decades later, the Daytona Beach Road Race, a freewheeling chase through town and down the expansive shore, laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the DAYTONA 500.
Held in the newly opened Speedway in 1959, the first race made headlines when the winning driver wasn’t decided until three days later, after race officials studied hundreds of photos to determine who had crossed the finish line first. That inaugural victor was Lee Petty, the father of famed driver Richard Petty—NASCAR’s all-time leader for wins, including seven DAYTONA 500 trophies.
Who’s Behind the Wheel
As the 2021 season begins, NASCAR’s roster of drivers may be more talented—and diverse—than ever. While a number of accomplished veterans are once again entering the Daytona track (Denny Hamlin, for one, will be vying for an unprecedented three-peat in this race), a new generation of young, scrappy competitors are also pursuing the coveted Harley J. Earl Trophy. Among them are Alabama-born Bubba Wallace, who in 2018 became the first Black stock car driver to compete in the race since 1971, and twenty-five-year-old defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who hails from Dawsonville, Georgia.
“As a kid, the DAYTONA 500 was just a larger-than-life event for me,” says Elliott, whose father, Bill Elliott, is a Hall of Fame driver. “I feel like it was something that everyone knew about, watched, and supported. That has a big impact on you and makes you appreciate it so much more as you grow up.”
photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
An Excuse for Some Fanfare
Throughout much of the South, the DAYTONA 500 is a revered occasion that sparks Super Bowl–level excitement; a spirited cause for gathering that brings folks together over shared hopes or a bit of friendly competition. On race day, the NASCAR experience can also be an immersive one, whether you’re viewing from the stands or your couch, the at-home experience aided by live, in-car cameras and an interactive platform for fantasy racing.
At the very least, it’s a worthy excuse to fire up the grill, perfect your wing technique, or whip up some dips, joining the scores of fans watching to see who will take the checkered flag.
The DAYTONA 500 takes place on February 14 at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. Watch the race on FOX, or tune-in on foxsports.com or the Fox Sports app.
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