As the American sporting landscape has evolved going into the 21st century, NASCAR – or the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – has become a more popular and more influential piece of the sporting culture. Once a niche sport confined mostly to the Southeastern United States, stock car racing has exploded in popularity during the last two decades.

Its sphere of influence has expanded across the entire country, with races popping up in places such as Chicago and suburban Los Angeles. Every NASCAR event is easy to find on television, analysis shows have popped up on sports channels, and the sport has even crossed over into Hollywood with movies such as, Days of Thunder and most recently, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. During this process, NASCAR lapped (no pun intended) Indy Car/Formula One racing in mass appeal.

So how did NASCAR go from being a regional niche activity to a sport with a national and global audience? It wasn't exactly a Sunday drive for NASCAR to get to this point.

Early Beginnings

The early stages of NASCAR actually came to fruition during Prohibition in 1920s, as bootleggers built the first stock cars so they could transport moonshine, which was illegal to transport in the United States, along with all forms of alcohol, from place to place in the Southern United States while being fast enough to evade the authorities. Eventually, these cars started to race each other on the side, with cash prizes going to the winner.

When Prohibition was abolished in 1933, the need for bootleggers went down precipitously. When this happened, the stock car drivers started to race each other in more formal settings. However, there were no set rules and regulations for these races – they tended to be track-specific – so it was hard to get a consistent set of racers to tour around and race each other. That's when Bill France Sr. came in.

France started NASCAR in February 1948 in Daytona Beach, Fla. – the location of NASCAR's most noteworthy race, the Daytona 500 – after months of negotiations in an attempt to regulate stock car racing across the Southeast region. The first NASCAR-sanctioned races involving the cars that most resemble the NASCAR stock cars of today took place in June 1949 in Charlotte, N.C. – the current headquarters of NASCAR.

The France family still is directly involved in NASCAR 66 years after its founding. The current CEO and chairman of NASCAR, Brian France, is the grandson of Bill France Sr. and the son of Bill France Jr., who ran NASCAR from 1972-2003 before retiring. NASCAR has been privately owned and operated by the France family since its inception.

Building Appeal Through the Years

NASCAR awarded its first championship in 1949, which was called the Strictly Stock Series. This championship was the first awarding of what is now called the Sprint Cup Series. This championship chase is the foundation for the growth of NASCAR, as it gave every race on the circuit (which is now a 36-race circuit in sites all over the nation) significance in the championship chase. And it also allowed the fans an opportunity to pick drivers to root for and follow them on a weekly basis.

The format also gave the television audience an easy reference point to keep track with what was happening on a weekly basis, attracting viewers at a rate to where NASCAR races are the second-most viewed single sporting events to the NFL. Couple that with the larger-than-life personalities of many drivers, which helped attract sponsors for the cars and advertisers for the telecasts, and NASCAR has transformed from a way to regulate bootlegger races to a billion-dollar industry.

NASCAR's success has also allowed it to spawn seven other different racing series, most notably the Nationwide Series (which serves as a circuit for up-and-coming drivers on the verge of breaking through to try their craft at) and the Craftsman Truck Series. It also has opened international offices in Mexico City and Toronto to go along with its American offices, and NASCAR races are televised in 150 countries.

The Sprint Cup Series

As mentioned above, the NASCAR champion is given the Sprint Cup, which is earned by grossing the most amount of points during a 36-race season. Points are accumulated by how a driver finishes each race, a system that not only rewards winning races, but finishing races – as crashes and mechanical problems are common problems in NASCAR. A NASCAR race typically has 43 cars, so the point scale goes from 1-43, with the winning driver notching 43 points and the last-place driver (or the driver that was disqualified first due to a wreck or mechanical trouble) getting 1 point for his or her efforts.

The Sprint Cup Series has had many names, starting out as the Strickly Stock Cup in 1949 before being named the Grand National Cup from 1950-1971. The most popular name for the series (which it's still called by some people today) was the Winston Cup after the cigarette brand Winston, serving as the name from 1972-2003. NEXTEL bought the naming rights for the championship in 2004, and Sprint assumed the naming rights after it bought NEXTEL.

The Cup Series got a jolt in 2004 when a playoff system, the Chase for the Championship, was started. Its origins came from a desire to increase attendance and viewership late in the season, when NASCAR has to go head-to-head with the NFL and college football. The system has been tweaked a few times in the 10 years since it has gone into effect, but what “The Chase” does is separate the top drivers from the rest of the field after the 26th race and has them compete separately for the championship during the final 10 races. This number has increased over time, starting out with 10 drivers in 2004, being bumped to 12 drivers (the top 10 drivers and two wild cards selected by the most race wins) in 2007 and 16 drivers starting with the 2014 season.

The current rules, which are starting this upcoming season, go even further with the playoff-like format. The list of 16 drivers to make the initial chase is cut to 12 after the Challenger Round (races 27-29). Four more are eliminated after the Contender Round (races 30-32), trimming the number to eight. That number goes down to four after the Eliminator Round (races 33-35), with the final four racers competing head-to-head for the championship in the final race of the season.

Every race has a separate cash purse for each racer, with payouts depending on finish and the total purse in each race.

Noteworthy Races

  • The Daytona 500: This is the jewel of the NASCAR schedule, as the race – which is held in mid-to-late February at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., – is the most watched and has by far the biggest cash purse of any race on the circuit. What makes it even more unique is that the Daytona 500 starts the Sprint Cup Series, making NASCAR the rare sport that has its top race in the beginning of the season rather than the end.
  • The Coca-Cola 600: Held in Charlotte, N.C. – which is considered the largest “NASCAR” city – the Coca-Cola 600 is held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It's noteworthy not only for its location in Charlotte, but for its 600-mile distance – which is the longest distance on the circuit – and the fact that it is held Memorial Day Weekend, which puts it on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500 in many years.
  • The Talladega 500: Held in Talladega, Ala., this race has been held since 1969. It has moved all over the calendar, starting as a midsummer race before moving to October and now to its place in November. Talladega Superspeedway is one of the more classic venues of the sport, and this race was the inspiration for the 2006 movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
  • The Brickyard 400: This race, which was started in 1994, is significant because it was the first race besides the Indianapolis 500 which was held at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now known as the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by, getting this race on the schedule was a symbolic victory for NASCAR and a reference point for the sport's increased popularity.
  • Toyota/Save Mart 350: Held annually at the Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., this race is noteworthy because it's one of two races run on a road course instead of the typical oval format that is seen in most NASCAR races. It is also an example of a race in a non-traditional NASCAR locale that's been able to thrive. The field is often diverse, as traditional NASCAR racers are joined by road race specialists.

Legendary Past Drivers

  • Richard Petty: Petty is called “The King” for a reason, as he is the most successful and decorated driver in NASCAR history. Petty's 200 wins are 95 better than the next-best driver, David Pearson. In his 35-year career, Petty won seven series Cups (tied for first all-time), set the season record for most races won in a season with 27 in 1967, and won seven Daytona 500s. Petty, who drove the No. 43 car, was also distinctive with his array of cowboy hats (mostly black) and his sunglasses.
  • Dale Earnhardt: Possibly the most popular driver of any era, Earnhardt tied Petty with seven Cup championships and is eighth all-time with 76 wins. Known as “The Intimidator” due to his aggressive driving style, Earnhardt become a crossover superstar in a fashion that was only rivaled by Petty. He had difficulties winning the Daytona 500, only winning one in 1998 after an extended drought. The Daytona 500 was also the site of his death, as he died in 2001 after an accident.
  • Bobby Allison: One of the most decorated racers of all time, Allison is tied with Darrell Waltrip for fourth all-time with 84 wins. He is also the patriarch to one of NASCAR's signature families, as sons, Clifford and Davey were both noteworthy racers. Allison's only Cup championship came in 1982, making him the oldest driver to win one. Allison also won three Daytona 500s.
  • Cale Yarborough: Yarborough is sixth on the all-time list with 83 wins, just behind Allison and Waltrip. He is second behind Petty in Daytona 500 wins with four and was the first driver to win three Cups in a row, pulling the trick from 1976-78. He also crossed over into Indy Car, participating in four Indianapolis 500s.

Current NASCAR Stars

  • Jimmie Johnson: The most successful driver of the last decade, Johnson has won six Sprint Cups since 2006, including a record five in a row from 2006-2010. Johnson is the reigning champion, winning the Cup in 2013. The El Cajon, Calif., native is known for his consistency, as he has 272 top-10 finishes to go along with 66 series wins. Johnson has also won two Daytona 500s, including the most recent one in 2013.
  • Jeff Gordon: Gordon was the king of NASCAR from the mid 90s through early 2000s, winning four Cups between 1995-2001. Gordon, who was born in Northern California and raised in Indiana, is third all-time behind Petty and Pearson with 88 series wins and is the all-time leader in poles with 74. He has won three Daytona 500s (the most recent coming in 2005) and is still among the top racers in NASCAR today.
  • Tony Stewart: The current “bad boy” of racing, Stewart is known for his colorful – though sometimes abrasive – personality. He's a pretty darn good driver as well, as he has won three Cups (with the most recent coming in 2011 to break Johnson's win streak) and has 48 wins to his credit. Stewart also has crossed over into Indy Car, winning three races and the 1997 Indy Racing League title, making him the only driver with series titles in NASCAR and Indy Car.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: With 19 series wins, Earnhardt Jr. isn't the most decorated racer on the circuit. But thanks to his lineage and his friendly personality (he's been named the most popular driver 11 years running) he might be the most visible. Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500 and has been a regular contributor to movies, television shows and music videos. His crossover appeal is important as the sport continues to grow.

There are several other current drivers that could be mentioned above, but that should give you a good base of knowledge as you head into the next NASCAR season, which starts Sunday with the Daytona 500.

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