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By Jody Mace

RISMEDIA, April 27, 2007-( million fans can't be wrong. NASCAR is the number-one spectator sport in the country, but to the uninitiated it can look like, well, just a bunch of cars driving in circles while a guy waves indecipherable flags. Getting a handle on the basics will help make the sport not only understandable but fun, too. Ready to get up to speed?

What Is NASCAR Anyway?
NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is the sanctioning body for some of the most popular stock car racing series in the world. The biggest three NASCAR series are the Nextel Cup Series, the Busch Series, and the Craftsman Truck Series. NASCAR oversees races in over 35 states, plus Canada and Mexico.

(Not So) Stock Cars
All race cars are not created equal. What makes stock cars different from dragsters, or from the open-wheel cars you see in the Indianapolis 500, is that they are proportioned much like the kind of cars we drive and have closed cockpits and fenders. They are based on retail models like the Dodge Charger and the Ford Fusion.

But there are big differences between a stock car and the sedan you drive to the grocery store. The only parts that are "stock" are the hood, trunk lid (of course there's not really a trunk underneath), roof and front grille. Even those parts are modified to meet the requirements of NASCAR. The rest of the car is even more different. Many of the amenities we expect in a car – air conditioning, headlights, backseats, doors and windows – are absent. Instead, you'll find safety features like firewalls, anti-roll bars and roll cages, as well as TV cameras and impact data recorders. Those lights on the front bumper? They're stickers.

Nextel Cup Series
You can think of the Nextel Cup Series as sort of the "major leagues" for NASCAR drivers. In order to compete in the 36 Nextel Cup races, drivers need to apply to NASCAR with an impressive résumé and race record. They usually build their record at one of NASCAR's other series. There are several series, but the one that most often leads to participation in the Nextel Cup Series is the Busch Series. Many of the most successful Nextel Cup competitors worked their way up through the Busch Series races. In fact, many Nextel Cup racers still drive in Busch races. One reason to drive in both series is that Busch races are often held on Saturdays at the same racetrack where the Nextel Cup race will be held on Sunday. Racing on Saturday – even though the Busch cars are different from the Cup cars – can give a driver a good feel for the track.

Winning It All
If the Nextel Cup Series is the "major leagues," then winning the Nextel Cup is like winning the World Series. Throughout the series, drivers earn points based on how they do in races. (A future article will spell out the nuts and bolts of the point system.) The final 10 races are sort of like the "play-offs" of racing. The top 12 points-earners get their points reset to 5,000, plus 10 points for each race won, and compete in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The series of races leading up to these last 10 races has affectionately been termed "The Race to the Chase."

The points leader at the end of the Chase (the final 10 races) is the Nextel Cup champion and enjoys, along with a check for several million dollars, the prestige that goes along with being the best stock car driver that year. Not to mention the best parking spot for the driver's hauler at all the tracks the next year!

Start Your Engines

The Friday before the race, drivers vie for the right to start out ahead of the crowd by "qualifying" for their track positions. One at a time, each driver gets to drive a lap or two (depending on the track) all alone, and the one with the fastest lap time is the "pole winner" and gets to start in the front row, on the inside lane. The second fastest qualifier gets the "outside pole," next to the pole winner but in the outside lane. The rest of the drivers line up in rows of two behind them, in order of their qualifying times.

The race itself lasts over three hours, during which time drivers endure temperatures over 120 degrees and rely on lightning quick reflexes, complete concentration and the help of their crews on the in-car radio system. Along the way, officials use flags to communicate with the drivers. Here is what the flag colors mean:

– Green: Just what you'd think – Go! Green is used to start a race and to resume racing speed after a caution.
– Yellow: There's a hazard on the course. Drivers must slow down and stay behind the pace car.
– White: There's one lap left in the race.
– Checkered flag: The race is over.
– Red: All competition must stop until the track is deemed safe to race on again.
– Black: The driver has broken a rule and must pull over to the pit.
– Black with a white X: A driver who was given a black flag didn't pull over within five laps and is not being scored anymore.
– Blue with an orange diagonal stripe: The race leaders are coming up behind a driver, so the driver should move out of the way and let the leaders by. Pulling over is not mandatory, but it's good race etiquette.

A Team Sport

It may seem like racing is an individual sport, but it's not. There's a whole team of professionals who help the drivers on race day. Here are just a few of them:

– Crew chief: Oversees shop operations and communicates with the driver about race strategy during the race.
– Pit crew: Up to seven members change tires, fuel up cars and fix problems during a race. If you've ever waited for hours in the lobby of a mechanic's shop, you'll appreciate that pit crews can change four tires in about 14 seconds.
– Scorer: Keeps track of how many laps cars on the team have made around the track.
– Engine specialist: Takes care of engines after they arrive at the track.
– Tire specialist: Takes measurements to figure out how the tires are wearing.
– Engineer: Figures out exactly how a car should be set up for a specific track. Minute adjustments can make a big difference.
– Spotter: From a vantage point high above the racetrack, the spotter communicates with drivers using radio, to tell them information like when they're clear to pass or to move up or down the track. Spotters are indispensable to drivers, who don't have side-view mirrors to see who's coming up on the right or left.

Often an owner has more than one driving team. Those teams might help each other out before a race, and the drivers might look out for each other during a race, letting each other pass in certain situations or helping to pass other drivers. But if they're battling for the lead, you can bet they will fight each other as hard as they would any other driver. They're all going for the same thing – the checkered flag.