To Start or To Finish: Should the Daytona 500 Always Be the First Race of the Year?
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins its season, it usually kicks off with its biggest and most important race of the year - the Daytona 500.
That's not to insult the other 35 events on the Cup circuit. After all, every race carries the same amount of championship points per position.
However, there's no other race like "The Great American Race," which has delighted fans and brought out the best of stock car racing for 52 years.
Since 1982, the "Super Bowl of stock car racing" has crowned legends like Bobby Allison and immortalized the likes of Jamie McMurray - all before a season's work has been completed.
While most stick and ball sports conclude their years with their most prestigious event of the season in the form of the the NBA and NHL Finals, MLB's World Series, and the NFL's Super Bowl, NASCAR's premier race starts things off for the long 36-race championship battle.
For traditionalists, having the 500 as the first race of the year is almost like second nature.
It'd be like knowing the Indianapolis 500, open wheel racing's biggest event of the year, being held on Memorial Day Sunday, the Masters always held on the first weekend of April, or for stock car buffs, having the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.
After the checkered flag falls on the previous season's finale, fans eagerly await a new year, trying to digest every nook and cranny there is to racing.
Be it a preview magazine, an online site (hopefully this one!), or video clips, the lull between mid-November to early February is like an eternity for an enthusiast.
Sure, crews, drivers, and racing personnel try to take in the break, spending it away from the asphalt arenas. Once it's over, the long drive to Daytona Beach, FL is in the cards, with Speedweeks being the name of the game.
The Daytona 500 serves as a sort of reward for fans, as having the most lucrative and prolific race of the year as the first eliminates those long winter days of waiting away.
With the season opener being at one of NASCAR's biggest tracks (2.5 miles, to be exact), which offers high speeds (say anywhere from 185-195 mph), high banking (31 degrees), and intense action (three to four wide racing), having the Daytona 500 as the first race makes complete sense.
Think of all the wonderful moments that have happened throughout the years that the "500" has run as the season opener:
- 1982: "Bumper Gate" victory for Bobby Allison
- 1986: Geoff Bodine wins the Daytona 500 on fumes
- 1989: Darrell Waltrip finally captures his elusive prize
- 1990: Derrike Cope seizes the moment after Dale Earnhardt cuts a tire
- 1993: Dale Jarrett bests "The Intimidator" in a family affair
- 1994: Sterling Marlin finally captures his first Cup win
- 1997: Jeff Gordon leads a Hendrick Motorsports-swept podium finish
- 1998: Earnhardt becomes a 500 champ after 20 tries
- 2001: Michael Waltrip's win overshadowed after Earnhardt's death on last lap
- 2004: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wins one for late father
- 2007: Kevin Harvick bests Mark Martin in photo finish
- 2010: Jamie McMurray scores emotional victory over Earnhardt, Jr.
Understandably, after all the changes and realignments made to Sprint Cup racing, changes to the NASCAR schedule aren't exactly well received.
Losing tracks like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham were bitter pills to swallow for about everyone in the sport, although expansion was inevitable during the stock car boom of the mid-1990s.
Markets like Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kansas City have welcomed superspeedways into their locales, slowly being accepted into the fold as their histories and reputations are being built, one race at a time.
Throw in the Car of Tomorrow, the Chase point system, and the influx of new drivers within the past decade and it's a much different NASCAR from the one that some folks may remember back in the days of Ken Squier or Bob Jenkins.
One constant through these changes, transactions, and milestones is that Florida beach track that nearly every young boy and girl who grows up racing dreams to compete at one day.
Ask the current field of talent in Cup, Nationwide, or Camping World if they've dreamed of competing at Daytona and it's almost a resounding yes.
Despite all the sentimentality and the logic behind Daytona and its "500" miler, a somewhat controversial thought crossed my mind:
What if the Daytona 500 was run as the last race of the year?
Granted, the consensus on this question would be a unanimous "no," probably as loud as the sound of 43 cars coming off the fourth turn on lap one of the "500."
Think about this:
Move the 400-miler from its traditional July 4th weekend spot (again, a very controversial idea) to the "500"-miler's date in mid-February, kicking off the season.
After 35 races and some heated moments in the Chase, "The Great American Race" closes things out, truly serving as the crowning moment for a Cup champion as well as the race winner who beat the best of NASCAR racing.
Weather wise, it's nearly warmer in November than it is in February.
Per Daytona Beach's official tourist website, average day temperatures 74.8 in the penultimate month of the year as opposed to 69.3, which would somewhat affect handling and speeds.
Excitement would still be found with the Daytona 500 serving as the season finale, especially if the championship points race is a dramatically close one (like 1992).
Even if the title chase wasn't a harbinger, having the biggest race of the year as the last event of the year would be fitting in that it'd leave a lasting impression for all those at the track as well as the fans at home.
Just imagine all the anticipation and frenzy surrounding "The World Center of Racing" if it had the Daytona 500 as NASCAR Sprint Cup racing's season finale.
You'd have the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, the Busch brothers, and Jimmie Johnson duking it out much like the gridiron greats grinding it out on Super Bowl Sunday - except that the once season opener would instead be the final chapter of a long but action packed season.
If NASCAR ever wanted to find out how loyal its fans were, holding the "500" during the NFL's regular season run would be a tremendous challenge. That said, moving it to a Saturday night on a primetime network like ABC might coax a football fan to at least tune into the biggest race of the season.
Yes, this idea would probably get shot down faster than Jeff Gordon deciding to grow his infamous mustache and mullet, but hey, it's an idea worth shooting - unlike the latter!
Until then, it's another 47 days until the green flag waves on another Cup season, with the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 yet to be in the record books.