The Mystique of Daytona
by Josh Spence

Two weeks ago the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit ran at the Daytona International Speedway just as it does twice every year. From the early days of NASCAR racing which featured drivers literally driving along the beach at Daytona, the speedway has grown into a race fan's Mecca.  The track not only features Nextel Cup events but according to their website, the track features "the most diverse schedule of racing on the globe", earning it the title of "World Center of Racing."  The track has hosted NASCAR races since its inception in 1959, including the prestigious Daytona 500, the "Super Bowl" of NASCAR at the beginning of each season.  With all the history that surrounds Daytona, a win there is something every driver dreams of, but few drivers achieve.

In last week's Pepsi 400, Tony Stewart became the most recent man to add his name to the list of winners at Daytona.  Over the past several years some drivers and teams seem to have gotten a leg up on the competition when it comes to restrictor plate racing. A restrictor plate regulates the flow of oxygen to the engine, thus reducing power and speed.  Unlike other tracks on the circuit that depend more on engine tuning and gear ratios, Daytona and Talladega (the two restrictor plate tracks) feature a more leveled playing field.  This allows closer racing with the driver's skills and the draft playing a more important role.  Drafting is using the airflow off someone else's car to increase speed.

Let's face it. NASCAR is a sponsor driven sport.  Just like any sport, without the money invested by sponsors NASCAR would be nothing.  What the sponsors desire is exposure.  For a Nextel Cup driver, leading laps and winning races is the best way to get that exposure.  To maximize exposure however, drivers want to win the big races.  A single win at Daytona can make a career.  Derrick Cope, a name many recognize, won only two races in his career.  However, that included a surprise win in the 1990 Daytona 500, by far the biggest win in a career that continues even today.  Winning at Daytona can make a career, or could provide a young driver with enough recognition and sponsor help to propel him to the next level.  However, wins at Daytona have been hard to come by in the last several years.

For years NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt dominated restrictor plate racing, and with more wins than any other driver in the history of the track, specifically Daytona.  After his death, it was the team he owned that would carry on the legacy.  Under the ownership of Dale Earnhardt Inc., the combination of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip has been a true force at the restrictor plate tracks.  DEI has won five of the ten points races at Daytona since Dale Sr.'s death in 2001.  Jeff Gordon has also stepped up at the historic track with 6 victories, and five Daytona 500 wins.  With so few drivers having success, it puts an even larger premium on wins at Daytona.  Since 1995 there have been 22 points races at Daytona, but only 11 different winners.

The Daytona International Speedway continues to be a huge part of NASCAR racing.  Many drivers race for years without winning at the historic track.  In fact, two of NASCAR's most popular legends, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, will be retiring at the end of this year. Neither has a win at Daytona.  Congratulations to Tony Stewart for adding his name to one of the most honorable lists in NASCAR.

Josh Spence