DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip is one of many drivers who thinks the installation of lights seven years ago instantly elevated the Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway to one of the premier races of the season.
Fans, no doubt, agree because in the years the race started shortly before noon, it attracted crowds of about 80,000. When the track turned on the lights, attendance instantly doubled.
"The night deal took Daytona to another level," said Waltrip, who has three victories at Daytona, including the 2001 and 2003 Daytona 500 and the 2002 Pepsi 400.
There's something magical about speeding stock cars under the lights. The sparks seem brighter, the smoke is more biting, the speeds seem meteoric.
"Changing the 400 to night was a really neat deal," Rusty Wallace said. "It was ridiculous to boil your butt off at 150 degrees during the day."
NASCAR has played with the schedule and starting times so much that racers now have different priorities. For generations, the four biggest races -- the Crown Jewels -- were the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at the Darlington (S.C.) Speedway.
Now that Winston has left the sport as the series sponsor and the Southern 500 has been moved twice in two years from its traditional Labor Day weekend slot, stock car racing has a new pecking order. Everyone agrees the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the season, much like golf's U.S. Open, but the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has emerged as the second-most important race. What makes that race important is the sense of history that comes with racing and winning at the Brickyard.
The Coca-Cola 600 is still important for two reasons: It's the longest race on the schedule and it's held in Charlotte, N.C., home base for about 90 percent of the circuit.
The Southern 500 used to be racing's version of the Masters. Darlington is still considered the toughest track to master. For more than 20 years, drivers called it, "The Lady in Black." Speedway officials have since changed their slogan to, "Too Tough To Tame." A win there forever changes a driver's life.
NASCAR's "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" promised to shake up the racing schedule, and Darlington's position -- and perhaps its status -- was clearly affected. After 54 years, NASCAR moved the Southern 500 away from its Labor Day weekend spot.
Most drivers agree the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600 now are the most important races. If there's a fourth Crown Jewel race, the votes are scattered.
Elliott Sadler said he thinks races at Texas or Las Vegas have been elevated to "major" status because their purses generally double most races, while Waltrip said either race at Richmond deserves such attention. Kyle Petty, however, said Darlington should always be considered a major event.
"If I built a brand new stadium across the street from Wrigley Field and my new stadium had better skyboxes, better viewing, more seats, as a ballplayer where would you rather hit a ball out? Which stadium would you remember the rest of your life?," Petty said.
While there's a debate on the sport's most prestigious races, there is little argument on the Pepsi 400's new status as a prominent event -- just like golf's Tournament Players Championship.
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