The Basics of NASCAR, As Explained Through Other Sports

In these strange/uncertain/ever-changing times, live sports have spent months in limbo. While some have returned without fans, some with weird and questionably-effective bubbles, and some have just been altogether cancelled, the sports that are available to watch are much different than what some might choose to watch if things were, you know, not hampered by a worldwide health emergency. 

NASCAR may just be one of those things for you; one of the first sports to return to live competition in any capacity, it’s also been the source of headlines that may have piqued your interest in watching. 


Though it might not be live much longer if drivers keep doing dumb shit like this.

It can be a little intimidating to jump headfirst into something like racing, even though it’s often boiled down to just driving in circles (Ed. – Just call them left-hand turns for christsake!). To help ease that learning curve, I’ve made the below guide, complete with comparisons to other sports to make things easier to understand. Hopefully it helps, and hopefully you enjoy watching some racing! 

Series: First things first, when people talk about NASCAR, it’s important to be specific. The highest level is the Cup Series, and it’s the most popular series, but there are several other series as well. Much like professional baseball, which includes a gradual progression of teams at different skill levels from the Minors to the Majors, NASCAR is built similarly and with mostly the same intentions. Below is a basic breakdown of those levels; 

  1. NASCAR Cup Series: The Majors. The Big Time. The Show. You get the gist. 
  2. NASCAR Xfinity(™) Series: AAA. Drivers who are almost at that next level, but just need more experience. Also a landing spot for many drivers who just can’t manage to be competitive at the Cup Series level, but can still perform at a high level. 
  3. NASCAR Gander Outdoors(™) Truck Series: AA. Drivers who are steadily building on their skill, but aren’t quite ready to make that leap yet. Home to even more drivers who are experienced but who just never got a chance or never found success at the next levels. 
  4. ARCA Menards (™) Series: A. The starting block for those trying to climb up to the Cup level. Usually the first experience that driver will get driving stock cars on the same ovals as the higher series. 
  5. Regional/Modifieds/Dirt/Etc: Independent/Rookie ball. This is basically the ‘rest’ category that includes drivers just starting out, those who just want to race locally or who don’t have the means or the desire to move up into other series, and even exiled Cup Series drivers who couldn’t help but drop racial slurs while playing video games online to a live audience. Also home to my favorite looking cars ever. 

One major difference from lower league baseball versus NASCAR is that you never see major leaguers playing in the lower leagues for fun, which is something you see in NASCAR with relative frequency. Why do they do it? Probably because they like winning a lot. I don’t know. 

Tracks: The stereotype of NASCAR is that all tracks are just circles and cars just drive left all the time. While this is generally correct on the most basic level, it does a disservice to how the tracks are designed and what’s required to win on them. 

In most other sports, even factoring in changes for home fields/courts, the playing surface is mostly the same everywhere. Even in baseball, the distance between bases is the same on every field, and though the outfield dimensions are different, the outfields themselves are all pretty similar (though they haven’t always been. RIP, Tal’s Hill.)

Which makes the most apt comparison here tennis. In order to be successful in any major tournament, a tennis… player? Is that the correct term? Whatever, the tennis padawan has to understand how the surface plays. How fast is it? What kind of surface is it? Once a tennis knight figures out how to master a particular court, it bodes well for them playing future tournaments on that surface. 

The same principle applies to racing. While every track has its own unique traits, they can be grouped into four major categories: 

  1. Super speedways: These are the ones that you are likely most familiar with, because it includes Talladega and Daytona. These are tracks that are over two miles in length, though within the Cup Series, you will also hear the phrase ‘restrictor plate track’, which is what the two tracks mentioned above also fall into. To keep from getting too technical, these are tracks where engines are slowed down intentionally by NASCAR to keep cars from going too fast, because bad things happen at high speeds on big tracks
  2. Speedways/Intermediates: This is most of the tracks on the circuit, and includes tracks that are between one to two miles in length. 
  3. Short tracks: This is pretty self-explanatory… they are tracks, which are shorter than other tracks. They also typically result in mayhem because having a bunch of race cars in a small space is just a recipe for chaos. 
  4. Road courses: If you’ve seen Formula One, this is the kind of track they run every week. Longer tracks with many turns and straightaways, these typically require more careful management of the gas and brake pedals than the other tracks. It’s the big chungus NASCAR stock cars running those corners with the finesse of me after a few cans of Sterling Marlins. 
Mmmm…. Sterling Marlin

Green/Yellow/Red Flags: This doesn’t even need a sports example attached– just think of a traffic light. Green means go, yellow means the cars slow down and aren’t allowed to pass, and red means everyone stops. If you’re thinking to yourself ‘But I don’t slow down for yellow lights, it’s my sign to speed up and beat the red!’ First off, that’s a dangerous habit. Second off, that used to be the case in NASCAR as well– drivers would have to race to the start/finish line under caution, unless they all were in agreement and decided not to do so, which happened in most cases. However, this was officially ended because it was quite frankly a really dumb and dangerous thing to do

White Flag: Not the Dido song, it signifies the last lap of any given race. The next flag that gets displayed ends the race. Think about the last possession of a basketball game when the shot clock turns off — except imagine that instead of going to overtime in case of a tie or a possession turning over, the game just ends. This is a bad metaphor.

The white flag is also the only Confederate flag allowed to be displayed at races anymore. 

Checkered flag: The race is done. The buzzer has sounded, and one team has won. Well, unless the winning car doesn’t pass post-race inspection. Then there’s still one team that’s won, but not the one that came in first. Don’t worry about it.

Pit stop: Over the course of a race, a driver will generally make several of these to get fuel and new tires, and to make adjustments to make them go faster or repair damage. Ideally, these will be like line changes in hockey– designed to keep the team as fresh as possible, so they can compete at the highest level of intensity throughout the full game, and should usually be done as smoothly and uneventfully as possible. Of course, they don’t always go that way

Race names: Sponsorships are very important in NASCAR. All those cars, parts, clothes, and employees are expensive! Unfortunately, as NASCAR’s popularity in the mainstream has decreased over the years, it’s been harder and harder for some to find sponsorships, and that has resulted in tracks/races taking sponsorships wherever they can find them. That’s the only way I can figure that we end up with things like the The American Ethanol E15 250 presented by Enogen or the My Bariatric Solutions 300. Similar to how we’ve somehow ended up with college football bowl games named Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, which I can only assume is for the same reasons. I hope. Otherwise someone is going to have a lot of explaining to do. 

Playoffs: Prior to 2004, the Cup Series champion was determined in much the same way as the Premier League and most other major soccer leagues across the world. Whoever collected the most points throughout the season was the champion, cut and dried. While this did create an occasional exciting title battle, more frequently this would result in a champion being crowned before the season was even over, making everything else pretty anticlimactic. It also emphasized consistency in performance over victories, which some consider to be bad or boring. In fact, the last ever champion in this format only won once in the entire year, and clinched the championship the race before the season finale.

NASCAR decided that this was boring, and decided to take the championship battle to Flavor Town and institute what was, at the time, called the Chase; with ten races left in the season, only the top ten drivers would be in contention for the championship, and the points would be reset to set amounts based on the finishing position of the regular season. Whoever finished with the highest point total after those ten races would be the champion. 

This went through several iterations, but the current format includes a playoff field of 16 drivers, and adds rounds where the bottom four drivers are eliminated every three races until the final race, where only four drivers remain in contention and a driver has to essentially win the finale to be the champion. 

This is comparable to most North American professional sports’ playoff system, except it takes a much longer time to complete. Also, they throw in a wildcard race at Talladega just for fun. 

“The Package”: If you watch the NASCAR Cup Series, particularly within the past year or so, you’ll hear a lot of rumblings about a ‘package’. Usually, these are complaints, and they tend to follow particularly boring races. Essentially, the NASCAR establishment are the ones who determine the parameters for how cars are to be designed, and their upper and lower limits. The idea is to get everyone on an equal playing field, and make sure that no one is at an unfair advantage. It’s also to keep the racing as entertaining as possible.

At least, that was the idea for the most recent change to the rule set, which limited the amount of horsepower available for cars and increased the spoiler on the cars, creating a high-downforce, low-horsepower nap inducer that turns races on intermediate tracks into hours long reflections on your own humanity, interspersed with brief moments of chaos on restarts that occasionally breaks out into brilliance

For a comparison, think about anything related to a team you love that set them up to tank for years. Whether it be dismantling an academy system, trading the best player on a team to a direct competitor so you don’t have to pay extra tax money, or trading an entire brigade of potential future superstars for someone who plays at about the same level as a chicken nugget. 

Matt Kenseth really summed up opinions of The Package best

The Yellow Line Rule: A rule by NASCAR that states when racing at Talladega and on the Daytona oval, the driver can’t pass other cars underneath the yellow line at the bottom of the race track, and can’t force other cars down there, either. A completely arbitrary rule that NASCAR enforces sporadically, whenever they feel like it, however they feel like it. It’s the pass interference of NASCAR. Why do they have it? Shit, I don’t know. Who knows? 

There’s a lot more to NASCAR, but this should get you set with enough of the basics to watch a race and feel like you have some idea of what’s going on. It’s pretty quick to pick up on, and can be pretty entertaining at times. At the end of the day, it’s just cars going extremely fast and running around other cars that are also going extremely fast, and I think that’s pretty neat. 

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