Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Who’s No. 1? Listing the 10 Best NASCAR Tracks in the Cup Series Today

After a momentary pause for breath this past weekend, NASCAR plows right into some of the best venues listed on their schedule. In the next two months, the Sprint Cup Series visits eight terrific tracks: Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix, Talladega, Richmond, Darlington and Lowe’s Motor Speedway – places that hope to get a fan’s mind off a rather rough start to 2009.

Thinking about some great racing to come, I sent a quick email to Frontstretch staff last week, asking those who had both the time and inclination to name their five favorite tracks on the circuit. The idea was to use their responses as a straw poll of sorts, proof for a future article on what tracks to watch out for next. But what I didn’t expect was the response and genuine excitement I’d get from almost every writer on the site.

And so rather than write what, if I’m honest, might well have been a vague, generic column on good tracks for racing, I’ve decided to write up the results of my impromptu survey instead – Frontstretch‘s view of the best tracks out there on the Sprint Cup schedule today. Admittedly, this is an extremely unscientific approach, and I’m sure with a rigorous methodology attached and a couple dozen focus groups, the results might look a little different. But that’s the beauty of sport – it’s all about opinions, isn’t it?

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So this is how our little voting session worked. Favorite tracks were ranked in a list by each writer – although not on a strict 1-5 method. If a track was mentioned on the list, it scored a point, and as you might expect the ones with the most points made the top of our final tally. As I collated everything the first surprise, for me at least, was that so many tracks rated a mention: 16 of the 22 current Sprint Cup venues polled at least one vote.

It was also interesting to note how people voted, and that’s reflected (in some cases) in the responses included below. Some picked based on great racing or great fan experience. Others opted for tracks based on first race attended, historical success, or hometown proximity.

When you look at the results overall, it’s probably not too far away from being a fair representation of the typical NASCAR fan’s favorite tracks. But before I speak for everyone, let’s see if you agree with the experts first.

First Place: Darlington (16 votes)
The Experts Said: “If I have to explain this one…” – Matt Taliaferro

The Lady in Black made her debut on the NASCAR schedule on Labor Day of 1950 – the sport’s second full season – and has remained on the docket ever since. This May’s Mother’s Day race will be the 106th time Cup cars have started their engines at the egg-shaped 1.33-mile oval, and you can pretty much guarantee we’ll see some fantastic racing that’s as good now as it was way back when.

So why was Darlington the most popular choice (aside from its sheer awesomeness)? Well for a start, there’s the history – in more ways than one. “It’s quirky, it’s a cheese grater and it’s old-school,” says Frontstretch writer Mike Neff. “The first ‘superspeedway’ on the circuit, it was built to see cars go as fast as they could – before they could go faster than the track could handle. This track has its own personality and it will humble the greatest of drivers.”

Every race on the Lady In Black leaves even the winner holding on for dear life; it’s a trait that might make fans mad other places, but at this one it only adds to the charm. Just last year, watching Kyle Busch lead 169 laps and still slip slide all over the track to slam the wall more than once just didn’t get boring. The Track Too Tough to Tame? You betcha, people.

And then there’s the unusual story behind the building of this place brought up by our own Vito Pugliese, who refers to the promise Harold Brasington made to farmer Sherman Ramsey when he bought the 70 acres required to create NASCAR’s first true superspeedway. “Old-school personified,” he explains. “The Track Too Tough to Tame. The Lady in Black. Whatever you want to call it, any track whose design was dictated by a minnow pond, I’m all for. We need more minnow ponds, less cookie cutters in NASCAR.”

For my money, Darlington is a worthy winner of our little survey, and this year, I hope to make the trip to South Carolina to see for myself in person. It’s a truly historic venue for the sport – and still one of the most important race weekends of the year. Now, if only NASCAR would give back the Labor Day date, it would complete the picture and bring the history of this fine facility full circle.

Second Place: Bristol (15 votes)
The Experts Said: “Bristol… How could you not love Bristol?” – Tom Bowles

It’s Bristol, baby! The home of the 16-second lap was pipped at the post by Darlington, but Thunder Valley’s place on the list is testament to years of tremendous racing and a genuinely unique setting. The 160,000-seat amphitheater is a cathedral to our sport – and a pilgrimage every race fan should make. “[Bristol is] stock car’s equivalent to a bare-knuckle barroom brawl,” our Matt McLaughlin points out. “It ain’t going to be pretty but you can’t look away.”

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Mike Neff reinforces this notion. “Bristol – just look at the place,” he says. “It is a football stadium that has been fertilized beyond the manufacturers’ recommendations. If you stand down next to the track and look up, you are simply overwhelmed by the scale of the place. It is remarkable, and now that they’ve resurfaced it, the racing is back, too.”

As luck would have it, a friend of mine – the future Mrs. Casey Mears – has had an inside view of Bristol on race day. She’s the first of two non-Frontstretch writers I’m quoting: “The night race, standing in the infield 10 yards from cars that look perpendicular to the ground… so loud, so fast… freaking awesome, even after all these years.”

A must-go track for all NASCAR aficionados, Bristol’s continuing ability to sell out not one but two dates with 320,000 fans combined safeguards their spot on the Sprint Cup schedule. Some even argue for a third race of the year on the high banks; and I, for one, wouldn’t disagree.

Third Place: Richmond (12 votes)
The Experts Said: “Perhaps the perfect racetrack configuration, a short track with enough room for multi-groove racing.” – Matt McLaughlin

I knew Richmond was a popular track, but I was a little surprised it finished so high in the voting. Perhaps I’m caught up with the fact that the second race is the Chase cutoff, so everything that happens is framed by that context. Don’t get me wrong; I figured RIR would be top five on this list, at least. But I’d have put money on others being more popular, in particular the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega – which, as you’ve seen, haven’t yet popped up on the docket.

But when it came to Richmond, the place was filled with plenty of staff support. “It’s short-track racing with the big-track feel,” Kim DeHaven explains, one of many who didn’t hesitate to make their feelings crystal clear for this short track. “I LOVE it! (Actually, this is probably the best track on the circuit, hands down, in my opinion).”

Our colleague Phil Allaway agrees. “The racing here has been very good in the past,” he says. “It seems that it got even better when they made both races night events starting in 1998.”

Once again, though, Mike Neff has perhaps the most thoughtful and interesting take of all. “In my opinion, it’s the perfect track for Cup racing,” he theorizes. “It is a short track, sure, but it has been engineered to allow the cars to flex their muscles. Driver skill and speed all come into play at this place. It’s a shame the cookie cutters were all modeled after Charlotte instead of Richmond.”

But it’s not just the racing, it’s the track itself that’s special – an “old-school feel, new-school facility” as Matt Taliaferro described it. Last season, Michael Waltrip was talking about RIR on a SPEED broadcast, and he made the point that in the 25 some years he’s been racing at Richmond, it’s just gotten better and better. Judging by the attendance – and the on-track fare – race fans seem to agree.

Fourth Place: (Tie) Talladega, Daytona (9 votes each)
The Experts Said: “Daytona – Nothing can beat NASCAR’s biggest race at its most storied track.” – Doug Turnbull

You love it or you hate it, but one way or another, you just can’t take your eyes off the restrictor-plate races. So, in that sense it’s appropriate that both Daytona and Talladega tied for fourth on our mini-survey. Yes, it is a somewhat contrived form of racing, but there’s something so utterly mesmeric about watching the closing laps of a plate race – one that’s nearly always decided on the white-flag lap, with the “best car” far from a lock to take the checkers at the end.

Sure, you can ride around near the back for the first three-quarters of the race, try to stay out of trouble, and then head forward; but we all saw how that worked out for Carl Edwards in the Chase last fall. But even if you run up front all day, the close quarters and chess-like moves to stay there mean you’re constantly within harm’s reach.

For me, still a relative newbie to the sport, there’s such a sense of anticipation attached to plate racing no matter what the winning strategy is. In the weeks leading up to the two dates at ‘Dega and the Daytona night race, I’m genuinely excited all week. And let me put that another way; while I love watching NASCAR, I only feel that way about the plate races, both Bristols and Darlington.

Of course, whenever one thinks restrictor plates, you can’t avoid thinking about the wrecks – including a crash that usually builds up into what fans have termed the Big One. “Rumor has it there is an ancient Indian burial ground where the track was built,” explains Vito Pugliese on Talladega. “Hence it has been cursed with having a history of horrific wrecks. But if that’s the case, all future tracks should be built on burial sites of other ethnicities, because apparently the offshoot of this [curse] is the best racing, anywhere, ever.”

Both these tracks were on my list, and attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 and standing on pit road watching the race will go down as one of my best (sports) days ever. So in honor of going to races with friends, I’m going to hand over to my good buddy Tim Crowley, a true NASCAR fan, for a final thought on NASCAR’s most famous track: “Daytona – so freaking awesome, for 10,000 reasons.”

Well said, sir.

Sixth Place: (Tie) Martinsville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Dover (6 votes each)

Four tracks tied for sixth on our survey, and all are richly steeped in Cup history. Dover has held 78 Cup races to date, while Atlanta and Charlotte are right on the century mark. Leading the way with quite the record, though, is the little old paperclip that could – Martinsville – who in two weeks’ time will host its 121st NASCAR Cup event.

And that’s where we’ll start in this quick review of all four unique ovals. Take it away, Kim DeHaven: “[Martinsville has a] small, hometown feel; beating and banging, side-by-side stuff all day long [on the track]. And as a fan, you don’t feel like just another customer here. Everyone, from the staff to other attendees, treat you like they have known you for a lifetime.”

Lowe’s Motor Speedway is another fine facility, and it’s appropriate the hometown track for most Cup faithful finishes with high marks. As Matt Taliaferro puts it: “It’s just the Mecca. You’ve got to go and drink it in.” And while Vito Pugliese might not like every change, he still gives the mile-and-a-half circuit an overall thumbs up. “Lowe’s – I still refuse to call it Lowe’s,” he explains. “This was the perfect racetrack until they blew it up with that stupid levigating in 2005, and again with the repave.”

“But it’s still the best track on the circuit, mainly because there’s something to do besides just going to the race. It’s a first-class facility, people, fans, atmosphere and racing. Mark Martin said it’s as easy to run fast here as it is at your local quarter-mile dirt track.”

Atlanta is a speedway under more pressure than ever before, despite the many and varied rantings to the contrary from Bruton Smith. Flagging attendance has put its status as a two-date track on life support; in fact, saving one of those visits might already be too late for 2010. But regardless of the problems, this track is known for close competition, and as Matt McLaughlin points out, “great finishes.”

Doug Turnbull is more effusive while endorsing Atlanta as his favorite. “It is my home track and always has good racing,” he says. “Plus, SMI tracks always treat fans and media well.”

Last but not least is Dover – or the Monster Mile, if you prefer – home to the greatest victory trophy in NASCAR (the Martinsville Grandfather Clock notwithstanding). This concrete, mile-long circuit hosts two races a year, including race two of the Chase, and can house up to 140,000 fans. Capital improvement projects have bumped up the facilities and the fan friendliness quotient that goes with it – but it’s the on track action that always seems to catch your eye.

“It’s close to home for me,” says Tom Bowles, “But I love it for so much more than that. It offers up great racing – even with the CoT – and I love how the Monster Mile can reach up and bite you at any moment.”

“It’s a larger Bristol, when you really look at it,” adds Phil Allaway. “But, unlike even the revamped Bristol [for Sprint Cup], you can pass fairly easily here.”

10th Place: Watkins Glen (5 votes)

I’ve always enjoyed the road-course races (especially the one in the rain in Montreal, a track around which I cycled around in bright sunshine last year.) So why so much love for the Glen? Other than general road-course enthusiasm, Mike Ravesi notes how fan friendly the track can be. “$80 plus a camping spot gets you into the infield for the weekend to see all three races, practices, qualifying, etc.” he explains. “Plus, its a banging four-day party with a NASCAR race at the end.” Hard to argue with that, really.

The Best of the Rest

Pocono – for its unique layout and variance of strategies, not to mention being a home track for many writers – picked up three votes, as did the Infineon road course out in California. Behind them, Indianapolis snagged two votes, as much for the sheer spectacle of the race as for the actual product on the track itself. Phoenix, Loudon and Texas also picked up just one vote apiece – not that great but better than nothing, I’d imagine.

And then, there’s the six tracks receiving no love from the staff: Chicago, Fontana, Kansas, Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami and Michigan. I can’t say I’m hugely surprised by this list of ovals missing out, but I did reckon Las Vegas might snare a vote or two based on the racing in recent years. I also figured Homestead might get a vote based on the championship, but that wasn’t to be – not exactly a ringing endorsement for a place where the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series all wind up holding their season finales now, is it?

So, that’s our very unscientific list of favorite tracks. Again, don’t be afraid to tell us yours (and why) either in our poll or in the comments section below.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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