The NASCAR season is a long and winding road held on 23 racetracks across America. The venues are diverse, with half-mile bullrings, twisting road courses, high-speed intermediates and white-knuckle plate tracks. Some thrill, some bore, some are in steeped in history, others lack any semblance of uniqueness.
But we have them all here, ranked from the best Monster Energy NASCAR Series Cup racetrack to worst, having factored in entertainment value, historical significance, location and the overall ambiance of the facility:
1. Talladega Superspeedway
Talladega, Ala. • 2.66-mile tri-oval
The one track that defines speed in a sport dictated on going fast, Talladega is the be-all, end-all of superspeedway racing. The original 200 mph track that Buddy Baker christened in 1970 in a winged Dodge, Talladega is the site of the fastest qualifying lap, the fastest 500-mile NASCAR race and some of the scariest crashes in motorsports history. In 1987, Bobby Allison went airborne and tore part of the frontstretch fencing down, nearly taking out the flag stand and putting the car in the front row. Thus, restrictor plate racing was born. The National Motorsports Hall of Fame is located at Talladega as well, and the infield on race weekend is essentially Mardi Gras without the cops.
2. Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Fla. • 2.5-mile tri-oval
When Bill France Sr. conjured the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, he wanted it to be the fastest and most impressive track in auto racing. Mission accomplished. Thirty-two degrees of banking in the turns, wide-open throttles and host to everything from NASCAR, GRAND-AM, AMA Motorcycle, go-karts and Monster Energy Super Cross events. It has also been witnessed some of NASCAR’s most memorable finishes and wild aerial antics — as well as the sport’s darkest hour in February 2001. Two weeks of NASCAR racing, known as Speedweeks, kick off the season, with the Truck Series, Xfinity, ARCA and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup running their premier events. Hope always springs eternal on the beach in February.
3. Martinsville Speedway
Martinsville, Va. • .526-mile oval
If nostalgia is your thing, look no further than Clay Earles’ gem in Martinsville, Va. At .526 miles, it’s the shortest track on the circuit, but also NASCAR’s oldest, dating to the first year of the sport in 1948. While some fans may bemoan how NASCAR has gone “too corporate” and “lost its soul,” Martinsville is viewed as a holdout, amidst pink hot dogs and the Grandfather clock that serves as racing’s coolest trophy. There is no shortage of beating, banging and retaliation – and Victory Lane is held right on the frontstretch for all the fans to experience.
4. Bristol Motor Speedway
Bristol, Tenn. • .533-mile oval
“Racin’ the Way it Oughta Be!” the track located in what is known as Thunder Valley promotes — and with good reason. The August night race was once the hardest ticket to get in racing, but has recently become obtainable. A track repave in 2008 created two groves of racing, and therefore eliminated the wreck-fest that once was Bristol. The .533-mile oval is a bit secluded, but that is part of its allure. When you walk into the grandstands that reach over 10 stories high, you get a feel for what it must’ve been like at Roman coliseums or what Rudy’s dad felt when he saw Notre Dame Stadium for the first time: “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.”
5. Darlington Raceway
Darlington, S.C. • 1.336-mile oval
“The Track Too Tough to Tame,” introduced in 1950, was NASCAR’s first speedway longer that one mile. Though it looked like one of racing’s grandest tracks, Darlington was on its way out a few years ago. But the addition of lights around the 1.336-mile, egg-shaped oval has kept it relevant. During a time when many tracks can’t give tickets away, Darlington continues to sell. Once a Labor Day tradition, the famed Southern 500 is now Saturday Night’s Main Event in early April. While that smacks in the way of tradition, Darlington’s gritty and abrasive surface — once ground smooth following a repave — refuses to be anything but old school. What sporting facility do you know of whose shape and construction was dictated by the landowner wanting to retain his minnow pond? At least that’s the way the grand old tale is told.
6. Richmond International Raceway
Richmond, Va. • .75-mile oval
Following the first race of the 1988 season, the old .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds was reconfigured into the modern .75-mile short track gem that it is today. An hour or so outside of Washington D.C., it’s a great destination for family, friends, racing and history. Often credited as being the ideal track for stock cars, Richmond is old-school charm with new-school amenities..
7. Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, N.C. • 1.5-mile quad-oval
The track that Curtis Turner built with the help of mob money and a .38 Smith, the city that serves as the heart of NASCAR is also the home to NASCAR’s crown jewel speedway. Home to the sport’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, and the All-Star Race, Charlotte is home to some of NASCAR’s most endearing memories. The original 1.5-mile oval is no cookie cutter, though following its 2005 repave, it has lost a bit of its character. Virtually all of the NASCAR teams are located within a stone’s throw of the speedway, so shop tours are must-see attractions if you’re going to a race. Plus, Uptown Charlotte is as nice as Chicago – minus the murder and congestion. Drive 20 minutes outside of town to and you’re instantly transported back to Mayberry.
8. Watkins Glen International
Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Fans are hot and cold on road course racing, but what’s not to like about The Glen, located in upstate New York? If you can’t get your old lady to go with you, fear not, Niagara Falls is just around the bend. This track seems to bring out the best in drivers, so there’s usually some scrapping (Boris Said vs. Greg Biffle; Kevin Harvick vs. Juan Pablo Montoya), great insults (Sterling Marlin calling Biffle a “bug-eyed dummy”; Ryan Newman saying Sterling’s hair piece fell down over his eyes), and some wild, late-race action. Last year’s tussle between Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose was easily the best finish of the season.
9. Atlanta Motor Speedway
Hampton, Ga. • 1.54-mile quad-oval
Before Michigan went Mayfield on speed last June (and until the plates come off at Talladega and Daytona), Atlanta was pretty much the fastest ticket on the circuit. Geoff Bodine reeled off a lap of 197.478 mph – and that was in 1997, 16 years and 150 horsepower ago. It’s also played host to a couple of the closest finishes in NASCAR history (Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte in 2000 and, ironically, Kevin Harvick driving what was the Intimidator’s car following his untimely passing in 2001). Although it isn’t Darlington, it honorably holds down the Southern 500’s former date on Labor Day weekend. As this list has proven, the oldest tracks produce the best racing – and Atlanta is no different.
10. Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Speedway, Ind. • 2.5-mile oval
When the term “hallowed ground” was coined, it likely was done so when describing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2.5-mile oval is most famously known as the home of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500. But in 1992, when fans packed the grandstands to watch a NASCAR/Goodyear tire test, it all but sealed the deal as to what track would soon be on NASCAR’s schedule. As a “bucket list” destination for any sports fan, prime seats are not a challenging get for the Brickyard 400 — and although you can’t see the entire track from any one location, it’s kind of hard to find a bad seat.
11. Texas Motor Speedway
Fort Worth, Texas • 1.5-mile quad-oval
Everything’s bigger in Texas, and this is no exception. Yeah, it’s a 1.5-miler, but the speeds are crazy fast and the banking falls away exiting Turn 2. The racing has matured since it received a second date in 2005, and usually provides some big speed and late race heroics; witness last year’s door slamming battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Besides, where else do drivers get a shotgun for winning the pole and a pair of six-shooters for claiming victory in the race?
12. Sonoma Raceway
Sonoma, Calif. • 12 turn, 1.99-mile road course
To many fans, it’s still Sears Point because no one could figure out what an Infineon was. This used to be NASCAR’s best road course until they messed with success and installed “The Chute” rather than utilize the Sports Car carousel course. It has now devolved into a fuel mileage venue, but late-race yellows tend to spring up and foster a fight to the finish. The elevation changes and curb bouncing are a break from the left turn-only rules, and how someone hasn’t plowed into the tire barrier at Turn 3a is beyond me. Plus after the race, go get glazed on a vineyard tour if you’re in attendance. Or if you’re at home, just wait until the 3:00 pm start time while basting in Midwest midsummer humidity.
13. Michigan International Speedway
Brooklyn, Mich. • 2-mile D-shaped oval
The Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Mich., are home to two races a year. About an hour outside of Detroit, this is one of the races that has always been key for the manufacturers to brag about having won — which has to sting a bit with Toyota having won four of the last seven. Michigan used to pack ’em in uncomfortably close, but seating rearrangements have made it comfortable again to see a spectator-friendly 400-miler. MIS has also updated the facilities in recent years and has done a masterful job of resolving the traffic and parking issues that made getting out of the track a perfect excuse to not go at all. The middle stages of a Michigan race can get strung out, however things historically tighten up at the end for a memorable finish. They were hitting 215 mph into Turn 1 here in practice last year before a slower tire was introduced, reducing the pole speed to a pedestrian 203.241 mph. Will the new Gen-6 cars push the envelope back over 210 this year?
14. New Hampshire International Speedway
Loudon, N.H. • 1.058-mile oval
Kyle Petty once said they should fill NHIS up with water and make it a bass pond. Of course, everyone cites Petty as saying that about every track, so who knows at this point. Anyway, many agreed with him after the Magic Mile produced nothing but duds the first 12 years or so on the circuit. Recently, it has provided a number of memorable finishes, and in part dictated the outcome of the 2010 Chase. It produced some of the closest finishes of the CoT era, and is notable for being the track to help draw fans from the Boston market. Say what you will about the recent downturn in attendance – NHIS fans still show up, even packing the stands for the must-see Modified race.
15. Dover International Speedway
Dover, Del. • 1-mile oval
Dover used to be the most brutal race on the schedule. You think the races are bad at 400 laps? They used to be 500 – on asphalt. Now, with its concrete makeover, it’s basically a big Bristol, only faster. Much like in the old days, the races can get a bit strung out during the middle portion, but if somebody loses it in the tight confines, there’s really no place for others to go, making this a treacherous joint.
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16. Phoenix International Raceway
Avondale, Ariz. • 1-mile, D-shaped oval
How have times changed in NASCAR? Phoenix is now considered a short track even though it’s one mile in length, yet measured in kilometers. Don’t ask me what the KPH is for the pole speed, because I’m not wired that way. Phoenix now hosts two dates, and by the time drivers get back in November, they’re usually pretty cranky after nine months on the road. Therefore, tempers run high, water bottles are thrown at cars, and sometimes Clint Bowyer will run through the garage to beat up Jeff Gordon after getting turned head-on into the wall.
17. Kansas Speedway
Kansas City, Kan. • 1.5-mile tri-oval
Bristol has Thunder Valley, Kansas has Tornado Alley. Hosting its first NASCAR race in 2001, Kansas was a welcome addition to the schedule, particularly for fans located in the Midwest, Great Plains and all points westward. Built during an era where cookie cutter, 1.5-mile tracks were being churned out with the kind of regularity seen only in a maternity ward, it’s not exactly the most unique track on the circuit. With the addition of a casino outside the track, there’s more to do than watch the race, get sunburned and corn. Lots of corn. On the downside it is Kansas, so be prepared for an onslaught of Wizard of Oz puns, costumes and innuendo.
18. Homestead Miami Speedway
Homestead, Fla. • 1.5-mile oval
Another 1.5-mile speedway built in the late 1990s, Homestead-Miami Speedway became host to the season ending racing, replacing one of Atlanta’s dates on the schedule. Homestead-Miami was first envisioned as essential to the growing Latino market in South Florida and inclusion into another major sports market during NASCAR’s boon years. All three touring series wrap up the year here, so it’s going to be witness to some close racing for both wins and championships. It underwent a facelift in 2003, switching from a flat track format to progressive banking. Suddenly, the racing was interesting and the first Chase for the Championship in 2004 saw one of the most dramatic finishes in the sport’s history for a title go down to the last lap between five drivers. It ranks a bit low here due to it having only one date, being a long trek for many and because it’s place on the calendar falls the week before Thanksgiving. The last time I checked though, you don’t have to shovel sunshine.
19. Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Las Vegas, Nev. • 1.5-mile tri-oval
Las Vegas Motor Speedway — or more accurately, its owner, Bruton Smith — has been clamoring for a second date since it received its first in 1998. It’s a major market track, and unlike some venues, there is actually something to do besides going to the racetrack. The only issue is the race probably won’t be the highlight of your trip. But that’s not really a problem, as it is still a great vacation destination; LVMS is also home to the Richard Petty Driving Experience, as well as exotic car rentals. Depending on the day, you can indulge your inner Dean Martin or Mark Martin. And since its Las Vegas and in the desert, your inner Jeremy Mayfield. Or Ron Jeremy. Whatever floats your boat.
20. Pocono Raceway
Pocono, Penn. • 2.5-mile tri-oval
The tricky triangle in the middle of the mountains, Pocono is one of NASCAR’s oldest speedways, technically being a superspeedway, as it is 2.5-miles in length. Pocono is unique in that it’s not an oval, drives like a road course and even the Turn 4 wall has a question mark painted on it. Pocono was patterned to comprise three famous flat American racetracks: Turn 1 after the Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the Tunnel Turn is an ode to the track in Trenton, N.J.; the final turn a tip of the cap to the Milwaukee Mile. Pocono has been witness to some of the most heart-wrenching and endearing moments in the sport’s history: Bobby Allison’s near-fatal accident in 1988, Davey Allison’s violent tumble in ’92 and Dale Earnhardt’s and Rusty Wallace’s emotional tribute to fallen competitors Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki in ’93. It was also the first race Tim Richmond won after being hospitalized for what later would be revealed to be AIDS. And, of course, who could forget Earnhardt flipping off Jeremy Mayfield after getting his cage rattled on the final lap in 2000?
21. Auto Club Speedway
Fontana, Calif. • 2-mile, D-shaped oval
The sister track to Michigan, the 2.0-mile oval in Fontana, Calif., has fallen off the map in recent years. An hour outside of Los Angeles, it was once heralded as the most important new track for NASCAR to gain ground in a major market. How far has it fallen? ACS used to have two 500-mile dates, including a Chase race, but now only hosts the fifth race on the schedule – and even that has been reduced to 400 miles. Attendance has been a major issue in recent years, with completely empty grandstands being attributed to fans shopping for souvenirs during the race. Uh, yeah. Okay. However, after dialing it down to a one-and-done locale, Auto Club has been the site to some interesting races, with Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart racing to beat the rain in 2012 and a last-lap, three-way battle between Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson in 2011.
22. Kentucky Speedway
Sparta, Ky. • 1.5-mile tri-oval
Located in Sparta, Ky., Kentucky Speedway is probably best known for having a traffic problem. The inaugural event in 2011 didn’t go so smoothly, with a number of fans missing the first hour of the race while being stuck on the highway — and others actually being turned away completely. With all of the hoopla surrounding it “finally” getting a date, the real question should have been why it needed one at all. Last year’s event was a snoozer, with a margin of victory of 4.399 seconds. There are existing tracks with twice the character that would provide a more competitive show than this 1.5-mile oval.
23. Chicagoland Speedway
Joliet, Ill. • 1.5-mile tri-oval
Chicagoland hosted its first Cup race in 2002. Since then, it has been host to 12 races – eight of which had a margin of victory less than one second. Needing a promotional kick in the fender, NASCAR awarded Chicago the first Chase date in 2011, however that’s been a bumpy ride for the facility. The first year was rained out and run on a Monday. Last season, Brad Keselowski won by over three seconds, with the final 73 laps run under green flag conditions. It seats 75,000 people, which is 25 percent less than what Wrestlemania III pulled in 1986 at the Silverdome. About an hour outside of Chicago proper, you’ll likely not find a track with less character. But if you want to visit a wayward uncle in prison, this is your ticket.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter:@VitoPugliese
Agree? Disagree? Let us know your favorite and least favorite tracks in the Comment section below.