Daytona 500 was super, but don’t call it Super Bowl of racing

col-cathyelliottAm I the only one who gets a little annoyed when I hear the annual “Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR” analogy?

All of you football and stock car racing diehards out there are cordially invited to correct me if I’m wrong, and I know from experience that many of you will enthusiastically take me up on that offer. But let’s think about this statement for a minute. It sounds cool and everything, but is it really accurate?

By definition, bowl games are end-of-season matchups played by two teams who have earned their right to be there over the course of a full competitive season. To my knowledge, football is the only sport that really embraces the bowl system, unless you count the canine kingdom’s Puppy Bowl … and really, how could you not? It’s adorable.

Anyway, it seems to me that NASCAR’s PR machine is sort of working against itself. In 2004, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship system was introduced. The Chase was designed to create a playoff format akin to other professional sports, in which all the eligible teams duke it out over the course of several months, gradually working their way up through the ranks until a fraction of them – and by “a fraction” I mean two — earns the right to compete for the title.

For the most part, the Chase has been successful. Granted, it’s a little hard to keep up, since NASCAR’s rules and championship format seem to change every year, but we know that when the final race rolls around, four teams will be battling it out at Homestead Miami Speedway for the title. We have seen some close contests over the years, and overall it’s been pretty exciting to watch.

Still, race number one on the NASCAR schedule eclipses race number 36 every single year. The question is, why? To get the conversation going, let’s make a short list of things the Daytona 500 is not.

It is not the most historic race in NASCAR. That honor belongs to the one and only Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (I’ll pause here for a moment while you roll your eyes over the fact that I am an absolute homer where Darlington is concerned, and totally unapologetic about it.) Without Darlington blazing the trail, Daytona’s wagon might never have kicked up any dust. The Buck Bakers and Curtis Turners of the world were hoisting trophies and kissing pageant queens in Darlington’s victory lane nearly a decade before the first green flag flew over the Daytona 500.

Daytona International Speedway is big, but it isn’t NASCAR’s longest track. Talladega Superspeedway holds the bragging rights on that one.

The Daytona 500 isn’t even the sport’s longest event, as anyone who has ever sat through the Memorial Day weekend race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will confirm. If reading War and Peace is still on your literary bucket list, you can easily accomplish this during the Coca-Cola 600. I did, and I don’t even read that fast.

What, then, is the big deal about the Daytona 500?

Money, for starters. As of the start of the 2016 season, NASCAR has stopped disclosing its payouts for Sprint Cup Series race winners. Hmm. What we do know is that Joey Logano, last year’s Daytona 500 champion, toted home a purse of over $18 million. Not a bad day’s work.

Rather than being a standalone event, the Daytona 500 is the culmination of a flurry of on-track activity known as Speed Weeks, which whets the appetites of race fans who have suffered – oh, how we suffered – through more than two months of silence.

Also, the Great American Race is a thriller, with high speeds, spectacular crashes and lots of pomp and circumstance. On Feb. 21, it added a little icing to its cake by managing to conjure up a last-lap charge and an unexpected pass that sent Denny Hamlin to victory lane in the closest finish in Daytona International Speedway’s history. With that victory, Hamlin also won a spot in the 10-week Chase for the Sprint Cup, during which 16 drivers will be winnowed down to the four who will duke it out for the championship at Homestead.

Honestly, it was exciting stuff, and now I grudgingly must admit that I can’t wait to see how the rest of the season plays out, and that I have basically beaten myself in my own argument.

It wasn’t exactly a bowl, but it was pretty darned super.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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