Pepsi 400 popular, but not at top of list
DAYTONA BEACH (AP) - As far as Michael Waltrip is concerned, there are only a handful of special races on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series circuit. And as
soon as they flipped the light switch at the Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night's Pepsi 400, it became one of them."There are a few
races that are better than the rest and few that aren't worth much,"
Waltrip said. "Everything else is in the middle. Any race at Daytona is
NASCAR has juggled its schedule and starting times so much that racers now have different priorities. For generations, the four biggest races the
Crown Jewels were the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., and
the Southern 500 at the Darlington (S.C.) Speedway. Now it's different. Winston has left the sport as the series sponsor. The Southern 500 has been
moved twice in two years from its traditional Labor Day weekend slot. And stock car racing has a new pecking order.
Everyone agrees the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the season, much like Wimbledon is to tennis. But the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway has emerged as the second-most important race. What makes that race important is the sense of history that comes with racing and winning at
the Brickyard, much like the British Open. The Coca-Cola 600 is still important for two reasons: It's the longest race on the schedule and it's
competed near Charlotte, N.C., the home base for about 90 percent of the circuit. The Southern 500 used to be racing's version of golf's The Masters
-- steeped in tradition. The speedway was built in 1950 for speeds of about 75 mph. Qualifying there earlier this year featured speeds of about 170
mph. The Darlington Raceway is still considered the toughest track to master. For more than 20 years, drivers called it, "The Lady in Black." Speedway
officials have since changed their slogan to, "Too Tough To Tame." A win there, much like a victory at the Augusta National Golf Club, forever changes
a driver's life.
NASCAR's "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" promised to shake up the racing schedule, and Darlington's position and perhaps its status was clearly
affected. After 54 years, NASCAR moved the Southern 500 away from its Labor Day weekend spot and moved that race to the newer California Speedway.
Darlington's spot was shifted to November. Next year's schedule will include another move. Darlington's springtime race was moved to the Texas Motor
Speedway and the November race was shuffled to May, on the Saturday night before Mother's Day.
"With the way things have changed, the Crown Jewels now are the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600,"
Wallace said. "After that,
Most drivers agree the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600 are stock car racing's most important races. If there's a fourth Crown Jewel race,
the votes are scattered. Elliott Sadler said he thinks races at Texas or Las Vegas have been elevated to "major" status because their purses generally
double most races, while Waltrip said either race at Richmond deserves such attention. Robby Gordon said races at California are big because of their
location close to Los Angeles. Kyle Petty, however, said Darlington should always be considered a major event.
"If I built a brand-new stadium across the street from Wrigley Field and my new stadium had better skyboxes, better viewing, more seats, as a
ballplayer where would you rather hit a ball out? Which stadium would you remember the rest of your life?"
Petty said. "There's always going to
be something special about winning a race at Darlington. Money doesn't always like prestige. Texas and Vegas may someday get the respect they deserve,
but right now they're buying it."
Danny Lawrence, a longtime engine builder at Richard Childress Racing, a company which helped Dale Earnhardt win one Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400,
three Coca-Cola 600s and three Southern 500s, agreed with Petty.
"Racers would rather win the Southern 500, no matter when it is, than most races,"
Lawrence said. "It's just so hard to win there."
Lawrence also said the new "Chase for the Championship," which turns the final 10 races of the regular season into a "playoff" among selected
qualifiers, may force everyone to look differently at the schedule.
"If the entire championship always comes down to the last race [at the Homestead-Miami Speedway], that will become a major event, too,"
While there's a debate on the sport's most-prestigious races, there is little argument on the Pepsi 400's status as a prominent event, just on the
fringe of the "majors," much like golf's annual Tournament Players Championship at Ponte Vedra Beach.
"It's probably top-five, top-10, for sure,"
Many drivers said the installation of lights seven years ago instantly elevated the Pepsi 400 to one of the premier races of the season. Fans agree.
In the years the race started shortly before noon, it attracted crowds of about 80,000. When the track turned on the lights, attendance instantly
"The night deal took Daytona to another level,"
said Waltrip, who has three victories at Daytona, including the 2001 and 2003 Daytona 500 and
the 2002 Pepsi 400.
There's something magical about speeding stock cars under the lights. The sparks seem brighter, the smoke is more biting, the speeds seem meteoric.
"Changing the 400 to night was a really neat deal,"
said Rusty Wallace, who's still seeking his first victory at the 2.5-mile speedway in a
25-year career. "It was ridiculous to boil your butt off at 150 degrees during the day. I like racing at night. The fans love it. They made it a
Derrike Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, said the Pepsi 400 already is one of the sport's major events.
he said. "When you win a race there, you've won a major race. What elevates the Pepsi 400, more than the lights, is the
fact it's at Daytona. The lights just makes it a lot better show for everyone. We like racing at night; the fans love watching races at night."
In many ways, the race has become a jewel for NASCAR. Just not a Crown Jewel.
[Edited on 29/6/04 by TRD]