You would be forgiven if you associate the National Associaton of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) with speed, muscle, machoism, and traditional American values. That is because most of those features are part and parcel of the history of the world’s foremost stock car racing series. NASCAR has been an integral part of American culture for decades, but you would be wrong if you think it is an exclusive sport.
Men, women, children of every race, creed, and color are welcome in America’s favorite brand of auto racing. Yes, there may be some more work to do to attract fans, drivers, and team members from as many communities as possible. However, spreading the gospel of NASCAR is something that true fans are only happy to do. Throughout the history of any sport, inclusivity has always helped it to grow.
This is a family-oriented sport, and just like the young kids you see in the crowds at most races, it is still maturing. NASCAR, despite its rich and colorful past, is not as old as some might believe. The sport was born in the quiet back roads of Prohibition-era America. When alcohol was outlawed, illegal moonshine (homemade whiskey) was produced for distribution to those who needed a drink. The problem was, there were plenty who did.
The men tasked with delivering all of this booze (and there was a lot of booze) were always at risk of being caught by the authorities, keen on shutting down illegal distilleries. Traveling by car, these “runners” would soup up their vehicles to make them quicker, minimizing the chance of being caught. Of course, when runners began to engage in rivalry over who was the better driver and who had the best car, races were organized to settle scores.
From these unorganized and often impulsive races came one of America’s truly great sports, NASCAR. Of course, there is a lot more to the story than bootlegging and bragging drivers…
It is easy to look at the modern age of NASCAR and forget that things weren’t always as big, loud, and colorful. These days, professional drivers, incredible tracks and speedways, media coverage, and the financial backing of numerous sponsors keep the sport up there with the best of them. The huge events like Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 can feel more like a festival than competitive racing (not that this is a bad thing).
NASCAR has rapidly evolved from the early days of its origin, however. The bootleggers and moonshine delivery drivers are now firmly a part of the past. Considering the Budweiser, Busch, and Coors Light sponsorship connections over the decades, it is quite humorous to see just how far the sport has come. Alcohol and NASCAR have always been buddies, but these days, things aren’t as secretive.
When all is said and done, America has form when it comes to giving birth to sports, almost by accident, that eventually grow to be giants. Football, basketball, baseball, and, especially NASCAR, came from the common folk. The reason for their continuous growth and acceptance is that they are sports by the people, for the people. Yes, corporate America has had a hand in building them up, but who also keeps corporate America in jobs? That’s right, the people.
NASCAR’s origins are humble but brazen. The sport was originated by the men who dared to do what no one else at the time would. These men, despite technically breaking the law, demonstrated many of the qualities that fans love in modern day drivers. Attributes such as confidence, admirable cockiness, bravery, courage, heart, and a lust for adventure and speed.
One man, in particular, deserves the eternal respect of NASCAR fans for his efforts in the creation of the sport. Allow us to introduce William “Bill” France Sr.
NASCAR would never have been possible without the man known as “Big Bill” to many. Bill France Sr. had moved from Washington D.C. to Daytona Beach, Florida in 1935. France had allegedly left his hometown due to the Great Depression and the economic complications that came with one of the darkest periods in American history. However, he chose to relocate to Daytona Beach due to his love of cars and auto racing.Numerous land speed record attempts had happened in Daytona Beach and this brought with it a particular sense of intrigue for France. While many similar attempts had been made in France (the country, just in case you are confused) and neighboring Belgium, the increased focus on setting records in Daytona Beach turned it into a bona fide racing town. This was incredibly attractive to France (the man in question).
Thankfully for fans of NASCAR, France would establish himself in Daytona Beach, despite arriving (with his family) with a modest amount of money. The son of an Irish immigrant and a teller at a bank, young France had always shown an interest in cars and racing. As a youngster, he would skip school and take the family car to a track in nearby Laurel, Maryland, doing laps before getting the car home before his father would arrive from work.
France had a great mind for business, too. He eventually made enough money to open up a car repair shop in Daytona and would make additional money by starting up cars for wealthy owners in winter. Despite his relatively humble background, France would establish himself in the local community. While the reputation Daytona had as a racing community was dwindling, France was determined to ensure it would not die.
The land speed record attempts that had put Daytona on the map in the first few decades of the 20th century were suddenly a thing of the past. Famous competitors like Malcolm Campell, Alexander Winton, and Ransom Olds had gained national attention for their efforts over the years. The three-mile stretch from Ormond Beach South to Daytona Beach was the place to hit the pedal in the quest for glory.
This was picked up on by the American Automobile Association (AAA), too, who had erected a clubhouse near the Daytona Beach finish line. Local businesses were thriving and the world-renowned area attracted a lot of attention. In 1935, a total of fifteen records were set in Daytona. However, pretty soon, the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah would take over as the new location of land speed record attempts.
Ab Jenkins and Malcolm Campbell’s rivalry certainly raised the profile of the flats, as they competed to set record after record. Daytona was now left in the shadow of Utah’s new home of land speed records and the local Daytona businesses that had maintained a steady off-season income as a result of the activities were in danger of missing out. The solution to the problem was to promote other types of racing in Daytona.
France’s determination to see Daytona keep its profile as a racing community led to him taking part in the first ever stock car race. The date was March 8, 1936, and the venue was the Daytona Beach Road Course. The AAA had sanctioned the race to be contested over 250 miles, 78 laps, and in street-legal sedans. The winner of the race would collect $1700 from a total prize fund of $5000, put up by the city.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the race wasn’t the roaring success that it was planned to be. The prize fund ended up coming out of the pockets of the city, given that observers had already made their way to the beach without paying an admission price. The total cost to the city was $22,000. The race itself was a disaster with cars becoming stuck in the sand and others stalling before turns. France would finish in fifth place.
While the first event was a flop, promoter Sig Haugdahl conceived a plan with France to set another race up the following year (1937). The Daytona Beach Elks Club would host the event which would be held on Labor Day weekend of that year. The prize for the winner was a modest $100, yet organizers lost money. The one upside is that the race was considered a success, despite the lack of profit.
In 1938, France would be tasked with running operations on the course. That year, there were two more events, with France just losing out to Danny Murphy in July of that year. However, he would triumph over Lloyd Moddy and Pig Ridings in the Labor Day weekend race. Over the next couple of years, there were three races per year, with four being held in 1941.
With World War II in full swing, Bill France kept himself busy with his daily tasks at the Daytona Boat Works. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan had scuppered his efforts to plan a race in 1942 and there would be no further activity until the war had ended. However, in this period he would meet and develop a close friendship with the son of an Indy car engine builder by the name of Jim Johnstone Sr.
Johnstone had a keen interest in cars, too, and would become France’s mechanic. The two men would travel together, racing at various small tracks around the South. When his lifetime friend, Johnstone, moved back to New Jersey, France would focus only on promoting, effectively stepping down from racing. His race record would end at two victories and six top 5 finishes at Daytona Beach.
France promoted a number of events at Seminole Speedway once the war was over, before building the Occoneechee Speedway in 1947. The track was constructed on farmland in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The owner of the land, Julian S. Carr, had previously raced horses there. This track would go on to be one of the first two NASCAR tracks ever built.
Ever since Bill France had arrived in Daytona Beach, his passion for racing had not wavered. Although he was no longer driving, he was still very much in love with cars and competition. He understood that he could do more for racing as a promoter and had arranged several successful races and even built the Occoneechee Speedway. However, things were not as organized as France would have wanted.
One of the major problems with racing, as he saw it, was that drivers were constantly at the behest of promoters. It was common for promoters to flee a race without paying drivers and this troubled France. In early 1947, he founded the “National Championship Stock Car Circuit” (NCSCC). France had aimed to secure funding from AAA, but this was declined by the association. Undeterred, he proceeded with his venture alone.
France created a set of rules for the NCSCC in 1947, He also announced that the winner of the race season would earn $1000 and win a trophy. France arranged the first race of the season at Daytona Beach for January with the final race taking place in Jacksonville in December of that year. There were to be forty events in total, with every driver eligible required to commit to the rules and regulations set out, as according to France.
That year, each of the forty events took place and were very successful, with attendances regularly over the stated capacity of the arena. There was also a $3000 prize fund for other drivers who had taken part and finished well. All drivers received payment, with Fonty Flock winning the championship and collecting his $1000. France handed him the trophy at the conclusion of what was a very successful season.
NASCAR’s beginnings can be traced to the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach at the end
of the NCSCC season in 1947. France had confirmed to everyone associated with the NCSCC that he had plans to expand the format of the season and was looking to set up an organization for race car drivers in the process. France and the other 35 members of the championship would meet at 1pm on December 14, 1947, at the hotel.
That day, France shared what he had hoped to achieve in racing with the other men and his plans for organizing the sport. The concept was initially called the National Stock Car Racing Association but this was unusable, given that another sanctioning body had already beaten France and the men to the name. Red Vogt, a mechanic at the meeting, suggested the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR). It sounded good.
The future plans for NASCAR and how it would be run, going forward, were put in place Bill France. A number of drivers assisted with the plans following three other meetings. According to NASCAR historians, the official date of NASCAR’s birth is February 21, 1948. It is said that the points system was etched on to a napkin from a barroom, further enhancing the simple origins of this now huge sport.
NASCAR had initially been open to the idea of entertaining three separate divisions. There were to be Modified, Roadster, and Strictly Stock divisions, with the first two of these divisions perceived as potentially more entertaining to fans. Fans, it seemed, had little to no interest in roadsters and this division was scratched off pretty early on. The modified division, however, still operates and is NASCAR’s oldest division.
If you are scratching your head right now, trying to figure out how the modified division could be NASCAR’s oldest, allow us to help you out. You see, the conclusion of World War II had led to a phenomenal jump in the U.S. economy. The country’s industries were thriving and the demand for family cars had never been greater. As such, NASCAR would have to wait until supply could meet demand.
The 1948 NASCAR schedule consisted of a total of 52 Modified races on dirt tracks, with the first ever event going down at Daytona Beach on February 15. Red Byron, who would go on to win the first ever championship, won the first race. There was a lot of interest in the events that year, with many spectators flocking to races. It seemed as though France’s idea had a lot of promise and potential.
If you think NASCAR has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, in reality, it has always been a sport where things move quickly (no pun intended). The constant state of evolution in the modern era means that technology that is new today would likely be obsolete six months down the line. While things back in 1949 were not that extreme, they had changed, considerably, from the year before.
NASCAR’s Strictly Stock division let itself be known to the public by way of an exhibition race near Miami in 1949. The first ever race was contested on the Charlotte Speedway (not to be confused with the Charlotte Motor Speedway) on June 19, 1949. Glenn Dunaway was initially judged to be have won that race before he was disqualified for the use of altered rear springs. Jim Roper is credited for the first ever win, as a result.
The division named “Strictly Stock” meant that cars had to race with little to no modifications to the products that came directly from the factories. This was the entire point of this division, meaning that no mods were permitted. The following year, the division would be rebranded the “Grand National,” and modifications to performance and safety features would become the norm over the next ten years.
Eventually, things would change to the point that cars racing in the division would essentially be race cars with a body that resembled a stock car. The evolution of the sport would continue into the 1960s. There was also major interest from manufacturers from outside of the U.S., such as MG in Britain, making for a more international feel in some races. By the late 1960s, things were really beginning to take shape.
Auto racing as a whole experienced a crucial stage of evolution in the 1970s. However, NASCAR seemed to be on the frontline of change. Considering the sport was still so young, it is incredible to think of how rapidly NASCAR could go from the vision of Bill France to one of the most popular sports in the United States. The 1970s was the defining period of NASCAR, for many reasons.
First of all, there was huge financial input from manufacturers. New courses and facilities were emerging and television was helping to push the sport in the right direction but at lightning speed. It seemed that NASCAR was set to continue growing and growing. The sky was the limit, but not everyone was happy. When the Professional Drivers Association (PDA) was set up, it seemed as though the sport was set for another change.
Drivers were demanding to be heard by the NASCAR governing bodies. There was widespread concern among members of the PDA over driver safety and their obligations. This represented the first time that drivers had really banded together against NASCAR, yet many could sympathize with their aims and goals. The early 1970s marked a general push for social changes, so it seemed to be in line with the times.
There were many changes to the way NASCAR did things in the 1970s. Records were set, structures challenged, cars changed. Everything seemed to change at the drop of a hat.
The 1970s, especially the first five years of the decade, are considered to be among the greatest in NASCAR history. The first year of the decade saw Pete Hamilton roar to an underdog victory over David Pearson in a Petty Enterprises Plymouth. James Hylton defied the odds to beat Richard “The King” Petty to claim the Richmond 500 in his first start in a Ford.
That same year, Buddy Baker – driving a Dodge Daytona – became the first man to hit over 200-mph (200.447 mph) at Talladega. Baker would be known as “The Fastest Man on Four Wheels” following his efforts in setting a world record at the track. Bobby Isaac would also have a hand in shaping the decade, winning the first NASCAR Grand National championship of the 1970s, by just 51 points in a record-setting race that saw seven drivers swapping the points lead, twelve times in total.
Many NASCAR fans over a certain age will remember the days of the Winston Cup. The naming rights of the series were bought by the tobacco manufacturer in 1971. The reason for the association selling the rights was due to the cutting of factory-supported programs that meant less money all around. NASCAR heavily relied on financial injections, and the sponsorship was a saving grace at the time.
1971 also saw the great Richard Petty claim his third Grand National, picking up an incredible 21 wins in 46 starts. However, the following year started off a little shaky for Petty (and NASCAR). Petty lost a cylinder at the half-way mark at Martinsville in April of that year but somehow managed to still win the race by seven laps. Petty’s dominance was believed to have contributed to less interest in the sport as a whole.
Attendances certainly showed that the sport wasn’t as popular in 1972 as it had been the previous years. The number of races had also been cut from 48 to 31. However, as the season progressed Petty’s now legendary rivalry with Bobby Allison made things a lot more interesting. Given the change in the points system that awarded points according to completed laps, Petty had to wait until Talladega to take the lead on points.
Petty won back to back titles that year and claimed his fourth championship, in total. 1973 saw David Pearson claim 10 wins in 15 starts, although it will forever be remembered for the Winston Cup triumph of Benny Parsons. Parsons had overcome the odds – and a significant crash at Rockingham – to snatch the title from Pearson in extraordinary fashion.
Parsons headed into the 1974 season with optimism but it was short lived. Towards the end of 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) confirmed that it was set to boycott all exports of oil to the United States (as well as Europe and Japan). NASCAR had no choice but to cut down on fuel reserves, making for shorter races.
NASCAR was set on using smaller engines this season, too, making for a number of rule changes. This era was still heavily dominated by Petty, Pearson, and Cale Yarborough. When Earl Ross emerged to become the first Canadian to win a Winston Cup race, many rejoiced. That year, Richard Petty won his fifth championship in what turned out to be a strange season.
NASCAR witnessed many changes in the 1970s, with the complete transition from big engines to the smaller kind. The decade was known as the start of the “competitive era,” with drivers such as Petty, Pearson, and Allison demonstrating some incredible talents. Four separate changes to the points system changed things up quite a lot, but throughout the late 1970s, things were definitely beginning to stabilize.
The tragic death of DeWayne “Tiny” Lund at Talladega was a dark day for the sport. Given the fact that NASCAR was beginning to gain more attention and was becoming increasingly televised, the 1970s would be the era where more and more was done to push the sport to the next level. By the 1980s, things would certainly be shaken up a little more as the sport began to become more refined.
The 1980s was another crucial decade for NASCAR and auto racing as a whole. While Formula 1 was about to kickstart its most important decade, NASCAR was aiming to ensure that the rocky events of the preceding ten years would not happen again. In 1980, a young driver named Dale Earnhardt competed with Cale Yarborough in one of the greatest championship chases of all time.
Buddy Baker won his first Daytona 500 and became the first NASCAR driver to win more than $100,000 in a race (collecting $102,175). If this was a sign of things to come in the 1980s, then it was certainly pretty prophetic. One of the major changes to the status quo in the 80s was Dale Earnhardt’s emergence as one to challenge the likes of Petty and Pearson. Both men had completely dominated up to that point.
Earnhardt established himself as a winner in the 1980 season by seeing off Petty and Yarborough to win the 1980 Winston Cup, with a 19-point lead over the latter. “The Intimidator” set a record as the first driver to ever win the Rookie of the Year and championship in consecutive seasons. Petty had broken his neck at Pocono, amazingly hiding his injuries to continue driving.
While NASCAR celebrated a new star, 1981 saw cars on the track look a little shaky at high speeds. Spoilers were brought in to keep the cars stable. That year’s Great American Race set a record for 49 lead changes and created a huge buzz in NASCAR. The year was record-breaking for the 772 lead changes that occurred throughout the season. It appeared that the competitive era of the 1970s was supercharged in the early 1980s.
Earnhardt would receive a huge boost following the 1981 Daytona 500 when the winner, Richard Petty, saw his crew chief Dale Inman join his team. This was seen as symbolic and a type of passing of the torch moment, considering Petty’s age and Earnhardt’s rising stock.
It had long been considered a tradition for teams to push the boundaries a little. The logic was that, unless the inspectors and officials could not identify anything untoward, it was par for the course to engage in the dark arts, so to speak. In 1983, officials began to ban the use of illegal fuel cans and fuel cells that were not explicitly approved in order to even the playing field.
This led to even more cunning from the best teams to bend the rules a little further. As such, NASCAR officials were kept busy identifying any illegal equipment or modifications. Richard Petty saw his Miller High Life 500 win shrouded in shame when illegal tires and an oversized engine were detected by inspectors. As a legend of the sport, Petty’s character was brought into disrepute.
The following year, Petty won the July 4 Firecracker 400 in front of the attending President, Ronald Reagan. The win was Petty’s 200th of his NASCAR Winston Cup career (and it would be his last). Petty could not reach eight championships in 1984 and instead had to settle for watching Terry Labonte scrape through with two victories and 17 top-five finishes. Petty would finish 10th.
1985 saw a new race added to the NASCAR calendar, the All-Star race. Entry was available to the race, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, to all drivers who won a race in 1984. The All-Star race was free to fans who had already paid their admission price to see the preceding day’s race, and this was considered a nice touch by the association. There was a nice cash prize awaiting the winner, too.
That year, Bill Elliot did not win the championship, despite an incredible record-breaking feat of 11 race wins. Darrell Waltrip would claim the title, even if his total of 3 race wins was dwarfed by his rival. Given that NASCAR scored drivers on consistency, Waltrip claimed his third title while Elliot would have to wait until 1988 to get his hands on his first.
Dale Earnhardt won the second and third of his titles in 1986 and 1987, respectively, while Rusty Wallace would claim the final championship of the 1980s. If the decade was memorable for just one thing, it would have surely been the competition. All in all, six drivers won championships in the 1980s, compared with just four in the preceding decade.
The 1990’s was the decade where NASCAR really found its voice. While it had always been loud and proud, things were beginning to sound a little more pitch perfect for the world’s premier stock car racing series. It appeared that the popularity of the sport was at an all-time high in the first few years of the 1990s, buoyed on by the efforts of superstar driver, Dale Earnhardt.
“The Intimidator” won the first two championships of the new decade, picking up his 4th and 5th titles in the process. In 1992, the legendary “King” of NASCAR, Richard Petty, would wave goodbye to racing enthusiasts on his “Fan Appreciation Tour.” A new era was in full swing and it appeared that one man was set to be at the forefront of a fresh period in the history of NASCAR.
In 1992, the unremarkable Wisconsin-native, Alan Kulwicki, took part in one of the most incredible championship campaigns of all time. Despite being offered a tempting offer from Junior Johnson the previous year, Kulwicki chose to go his own way, much to the confusion of everyone in the sport.
Alan Kulwicki, the expressionless and unlikely outsider from Wisconsin had flown onto the scene in remarkable fashion. Instead of accepting an attractive team offer from Junior Johnson in 1992, Kulwicki chose to put his faith in his own operation. The decision shocked the entire racing community, who were even more stunned when he pipped Bill Elliott to the championship in 1992.
A new kid had by the name of Jeff Gordon would also emerge to potentially fill the void left by Petty. Gordon had made his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series at Atlanta that same year, coincidentally in Petty’s final race.
April 1, 1993, saw a dark day in NASCAR when the newly-crowned superstar Alan Kulwicki died in a private airplane crash while on his way to the Bristol Motor Speedway. Kulwicki’s death was a great shock that cast a huge shadow over the sport. Just a few months later, on July 13, Davey Allison lost his life in a helicopter crash at Talladega. The son of Bobby Allison, like Kulwicki, was tipped to have a huge career in the sport.
While the tragic events of 1993 took some time to get over, the sport was beginning to embark on a new era. While Earnhardt would win back-to-back titles for the third time in 1993 and 1994, Gordon’s first championship win in 1995 – highlighted by a seven-win season including 17 top-three finishes in 31 starts – brought him wide acclaim. Gordon was a close rival to Earnhardt as the face of the sport at the time.
NASCAR had never been more popular throughout this period. The entertaining and silky driving skills of Gordon and the cunning, aggressive driving-style of Earnhardt combined to give the sport a dimension that it never had before. Commercial interest – as well as attendances and television views – were off the charts. Terry Labonte would remind everyone in 1997 that he had not gone away, winning the championship in what is considered to be just behind Kulwicki’s title-win in 1993 in terms of surprise.
Dale Earnhardt had pretty much achieved everything he had wanted to in NASCAR. Pretty much. The one thing that he had failed to do was win at the Daytona 500. In 1990, “The Intimidator” blew a tire on the final lap despite leading 155 of the 200 laps. The race was heartbreaking for Earnhardt and his fans, but in 1998, things would go his way and everyone recognized what this meant to the great driver.
Earnhardt had his first Daytona 500 victory and would witness every crew member in the pit congratulating and paying respect to the 46-year-old legend. The previous year had seen the Kannapolis, North Carolina-native fail to pick up a win. The new season started with the seven-time champion finally taking his place on the top podium of the Great American Race.
1998 would culminate in Jeff Gordon winning back-to-back championships, solidifying his claim as the best driver of the decade. The “Rainbow Warrior” would not claim the final championship of the 1990s, however, as Dale Jarrett (son of former two-time world champion Ned Jarrett) took the spoils in the final Cup Series of the 20th Century.
The 1990s had seen NASCAR establish itself as one of the most important and popular sports in the United States. The new millennium looked like the perfect opportunity to aim even higher than before.
If the new millennium was to usher in a new era in NASCAR, then it started off pretty convincingly. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bobby Labonte claimed the first championship of the 2000s to claim his first Cup Series championship. Iconic driver Darrell Waltrip, who had three championships to his name, also bowed out of the sport in this season. Despite the departure of Waltrip, NASCAR was still keen to push its profile even higher.
In the preceding decade, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon had enjoyed a solid rivalry but it was Gordon who was stronger as the decade closed out. Earnhardt’s glory days seemed to be behind him but he would still continue to remain confident in achieving an eight championship win, something that had never been done before. After all, he won his first race in Daytona against the odds, so anything was possible.
Even with the new era beginning to take shape, Earnhardt’s presence was one that was welcomed by fans of the old-school racing style that he was renowned for. In 2001, however, Earnhardt’s career would come to a tragic and unexpected end.
The seven-time world champion and ever-popular driver lost his life in a crash in turn 4 on the final lap of the Daytona 500, on February 18, 2001. The televised incident shocked the nation and will forever be remembered by fans. The footage of Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who had also competed in the race – running up to his father’s crashed car, left an imprint on fans of the sport.
Daytona safety teams took Earnhardt to the Halifax Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 5:16pm. The legendary driver’s cause of death was confirmed as blunt force trauma to the head in addition to other injuries suffered as a cause of the crash. Earnhardt’s death sent shockwaves throughout the sport and gained major national attention in the media.
For many fans of the sport, Earnhardt was the ultimate hero. He had epitomized the spirit of NASCAR and was seen as an iconic figure who bridged the gap between the old era and the modern age. Following his death, the eyes of the world were fixed on his son, Dale Jr., and – as unfairly as it might have been on the son of “The Intimidator” – there were hopes and expectations attached to this attention.
Despite the pressures, Earnhardt Jr’s return to Daytona for the Pepsi 400 in July 2001 was a great achievement. He won the race – just the third of his career – on the anniversary of his father’s first points win career on the same track. The scenes of celebration were incredibly uplifting and almost cathartic to the legions of fans and observers watching.
2002 to 2004 saw three different drivers win their first Cup Series championships. Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch proved that the competition in NASCAR was present in the new era. In 2004, it seemed as though the face of NASCAR as fans knew it was set to change again. Winston, who had owned the naming rights of the Cup Series since 1971, was replaced by Nextel Sprint.
The following year. Tony Stewart teased at the building of a legacy with his second career championship in four seasons. However, any hopes of dominating the remainder of the decade were abruptly shattered with the emergence of a new superstar.
Dynasties and legacies have been built in NASCAR over the years. There have been a handful of drivers who completely bossed the track and took everything that wasn’t bolted or welded to the floor. Iconic drivers such as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon will forever be remembered for their greatness. When it comes down to it, no one dominated an era quite like Jimmie Johnson.
Entering the new millennium, it appeared that there would be a number of drivers who would contest NASCAR’s elite competition. Quite simply, the 2000s were expected to consist of closely contested, exciting, and spectator-friendly championships. That was until Johnson pretty much established the most overwhelming period of dominance ever seen in the rich history of the sport.
Johnson set a record for the most consecutive championship wins for a driver, at five, between 2006 and 2010. A consistent and methodical driver, Johnson’s first championship win saw him earn the praise of other drivers, present and past, as well as the NASCAR faithful. The following year, he proved his credentials with four straight victories in a season where he finished with 10 race wins.
Suddenly, it appeared that Johnson was so far ahead of everyone else that this period of dominance would continue for some time. It did. In 2008, Johnson’s third straight championship confirmed that. Then, he went on to win in 2009 and 2010. Suddenly, the competition that NASCAR was famous for was gone. Interest in the sport dwindled and fans began to get a little bored of Johnson’s greatness.
Did Johnson get a little bored of his own success, or did he lose hunger? That was a matter of debate for fans and pundits. 2011 saw his winning run of championships snapped by Tony Stewart, who collected his third championship in the process. The season was everything that the five preceding ones were not and featured an exciting final race tiebreak victory over Carl Edwards.
In 2013, Brad Keselowski became the first Dodge driver to win the championship since Richard Petty in 1975. The following year saw the introduction of sixth-generation cars and a sixth title win for Jimmie Johnson. The decade was certainly more competitive than the 2000s had been, however, interest in the sport had not recovered to the peak of its powers in the 1990s.
As the 2010s played out, new technology and a modern attitude to NASCAR made it seem a million miles away from Bill France’s original idea for an organized driver’s championship. There was little doubt that NASCAR had the infrastructure, history, and prestige to reestablish itself as a great spectator sport, but it seemed likely that an injection of ingenuity would be required to get there.
It seems unlikely that Bill France had any idea of just how far his idea for NASCAR would take the sport. The car-crazy son of an Irish immigrant and a bank teller lived, breathed, and slept racing and will forever be remembered for turning his vision into an incredible institution. His hard work and dedication to creating the ultimate racing series can never be forgotten by everyone associated with NASCAR.
If France had given up on his dreams, we would never have witnessed the stunning spectacles of the Daytona 500 or Coca-Cola 600 over the years. Fans would have never been a part of some of the greatest achievements of the sport, such as Richard Petty’s supreme skills on the track, or Dale Earnhardt’s iconic presence. The cars, the stadia, the occasions… they are all possible because of the “Father of NASCAR.”