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The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup is the strongest series in North America although even this heavyweight has had recent financial struggles.
That said, it regularly boasts fields of 43 closely matched stock cars for the 36 championship races held each year. It has been the most American of racing categories with cars from Ford, Pontiac, Dodge and Chevrolet driven by a cast of mainly home-grown talent. Japanese manufacturer Toyota entered the series in 2007 to add some international machinery but an overseas driver is yet to win the title.
Events are held at state-of-the-art speedways throughout America, with the races at Watkins Glen and Sears Point the only road courses on the calendar.
Bill France and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing first organised a championship for “strictly stock” cars in 1949. Soon known as Grand National, sponsorship from the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company prompted a title change to Winston Cup in 1972. Recent sponsorship changes resulted in the Cup being named after Nextel (2004-07) and then Sprint from 2008.
A streamlined calendar that essentially halved the number of events was also introduced in 1972. It concentrated on the major races and allowed drivers to compete in every event. In previous years clashing race dates had made this impossible. Those changes launched NASCAR's “Modern Era,” as the organisation worked to overtake open-wheel racing as the continent's most watched motorsport series.
Key to NASCAR's growth was the live television coverage of races. The first such broadcast on network television was the Blue Riband Daytona 500 in 1979. It ended with race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison clashing on the last lap to hand victory to Richard Petty. As the cars came to rest, a fight broke out between Yarborough and Allison, who was joined by his brother Bobby, live on CBS Television – a perfect way to gain vital column inches and launch NASCAR into the mainstream of American sports.
Petty and Dale Earnhardt sr have both won the NASCAR Cup title on seven occasions with Jimmie Johnson one behind. Johnson's recent successes include a record five championship wins in a row from 2006 to 2010.
Chase For The Cup
When Matt Kenseth secured the 2003 title despite winning only one race, NASCAR decided to liven up the end of the season by introducing the Chase for the Cup to decide its champion. Resembling the Play Off system that is prevalent in American sports, the top ten drivers after the 26 races of the "regular season" then entered the 10-race Chase – their points adjusted so the remaining contenders were effectively eliminated from the title race.
The field was boosted to 12 in 2007 before even more radical (and controversial) changes were made for 2014. Now 16 drivers qualified for the Chase with the bottom four eliminated at Race Three, Six and then Nine. That left the remaining four drivers going head-to-head at the final round, with whoever finished highest crowned NASCAR Champion.