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75 things for NASCAR's 75th anniversary: Best racetracks

To celebrate NASCAR's 75th anniversary, Ryan McGee presents a top-5 list every week for the rest of 2023. This week: the best racetracks.



75 things for NASCAR's 75th anniversary: Best racetracks
75 things for NASCAR's 75th anniversary: Best racetracks
We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series' 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.

Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We've got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.

Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.

Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races | Best title fights | Best-looking cars | Worst-looking cars | Biggest cheaters | Biggest what-ifs | Weirdest racetracks

As we continue to roll through our NASCAR 75th anniversary celebration via our weekly top-five all-time greatest lists, we also fight to properly roll through the best racing line, seeking to achieve the perfect balance between crazy and awesome. Like Cale Yarborough qualifying at Daytona in 1983, one lap you can be running 200-plus mph and the next you can totally lose the handle and wind up airborne and upside down.

One week ago, we revealed our top five weirdest racetracks. So, it only makes sense to counter that goofiness with greatness. So, grab a helmet, strap those belts tight and follow the pace car out onto the asphalt (although, please not as close as Dale Earnhardt messing with Elmo Langley back in the day) as we present our top five all-time greatest NASCAR racetracks.

No, not the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Not even the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval or the Charlotte Fairgrounds Speedway. Nope, just plain ol' Charlotte Speedway, the three-quarter-mile red-clay oval located just southwest of sleepy downtown Charlotte.

It was dirty, uneven, as dry on one end as it was a mud bog on the other. It hosted a dozen Cup Series (then Strictly Stock) events from 1949 to 1956 and crowned eight winners, four of whom are already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and two more who should be (ahem, Fonty Flock and Speedy Thompson).

The reason it makes this list, though, is because it hosted the first race of what has become the Cup Series and it was the perfectly imperfect place to do so. The track is long gone, but you can still find a historical marker at the site, located between razor wire-wrapped trucking depots and parking lots just north of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

This place has never made any sense. It's too big. It's too fast. It was built atop both an abandoned military airbase and Native American holy ground.

The 2.66-mile monster (which is just a weird measurement, by the way) with the 33-degree turns that measure 26 feet in height has ignited countless "Big One" crashes and even more big controversies. The place was so intimidating that, when it opened in 1969, the superstars of the sport staged a walkout, leaving the inaugural race to be run by journeyman racers called up from lower divisions by a defiant Big Bill France.

In the 54 years since, though, it has produced so many ridiculous finishes (see: Dale Sr. passing 18 cars in four laps to win in 2000) and ridiculous moments (see: Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning four in a row) and ridiculous records (Bill Elliott's 212.808 mph lap in 1987 is still a NASCAR mark) that can't be outrun even by an equally long parade of weird and bad Talladega tales. Speaking of those Talladega curses, here's a list I compiled 15 years ago.

The only track to be included on the OG NASCAR Strictly Stock schedule alongside Charlotte Speedway in 1949 and has never left that calendar since (sorry, North Wilkesboro). This mega-flat, half-mile paper clip tucked into the hills of southern Virginia still very much feels and even smells like it did back when Red Byron won the first of the 149(!) NASCAR premier series races this fabled bullring has hosted, beginning 74 years ago next week.

Sure, it's been paved since then, but like that day in September 1949, the train still creeps its way along the backstretch so the conductor can check who's winning, the place is still total hell on brakes, and those famous Martinsville hot dogs are still just as good, and still just as pink. I wrote this love letter to all the above back in 2008.

In 1960, when Curtis Turner and Bruton Smith bankrupted themselves building a mile-and-a-half oval in the middle of nowhere north of Charlotte (Turner even managed to earn himself a lifetime ban), they were viewed by many as foolish and reckless. In actuality, they were a pair of motorsports visionaries. NASCAR was moving into its so-called Speedway Era, beginning its long shift away from a short-track-packed near-nightly schedule in search of weekend venues that were literally, figuratively and financially bigger.

That day in 1960, the uncured asphalt came up in chunks to the point that racers had to wrap their rides in chicken wire to protect their radiators from tumbling blacktop projectiles.

Ever since, Charlotte Motor Speedway has been a future factory, from former speedway president Humpy Wheeler finding funding to get a very young Earnhardt and a very resisted Janet Guthrie onto his racetrack to innovations such as the first speedway lighting grid, the Speedway Club, the Turn 1 condos, the NASCAR All-Star Race and, yes, the Roval. Its double-dogleg D-shaped intermediate layout also became the model for an entire generation of racetracks, for better or worse.

CMS never sits still. Never has. Never will.

How awesome is this place? It doesn't have merely one cool nickname but two! "The Lady in Black" and "The Track Too Tough To Tame."

Darlington was "Field of Dreams" long before "Shoeless" Joe Jackson wandered in out of the corn, the dream of entrepreneur Harold Brasington, who visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway and left so inspired that he decided to build a big ol' racetrack in ... the sandhills of South Carolina? Brasington plowed under his peanut crops amid whispers from locals that he had lost his mind and ended up with a sufficiently quirky 1.366-mile oval that was egg-shaped because he had had to work around a minnow pond a neighboring farmer refused to sell.

It was stock car racing's first asphalt speedway, and although the layout has been slightly altered over the years, to most modern racers with any sense of stock car racing history, Darlington is the place and the Southern 500 is the race where they can truly see and feel how they might have measured up against NASCAR's moonshine-soaked pioneers who took Darlington's first green flag on Labor Day weekend 1950.

Yes, this is a very old-school list. And yes, if it weren't for touchstone racetracks like Darlington and Martinsville, then the World Center of Racing would never have been born in 1959. Of all the top-five lists we have compiled so far, though, this might have been the easiest No. 1 ranking to decide.

That's because in every corner of this planet, if you say the word "Daytona," chances are someone in the room, no matter what language they speak, is going to know the name. And speaking of top-five lists, if you asked any longtime NASCAR fan or competitor to compile their roll call of greatest moments in stock car history, there is zero doubt that it would include at least one Daytona moment -- and more likely multiple ones.

Lee Petty's photo finish in 1959. David Pearson vs. Richard Petty in 1976. "The King" and "There's a fight!" in 1979. Petty's 200th win in 1984. Darrell Waltrip finally winning the 500 in 1989 with a "Thank God!" Earnhardt finally winning it in 1998 and the world's longest high-five line. Dale Jr.'s emotional July win in 2001. Kevin Harvick vs. Mark Martin. All of the wild checkers-or-wreckers finishes of recent years.

It's as simple as this. NASCAR visits so many amazing racetracks every year, and has visited so many countless more over all these decades, but there is only one axis upon which the entire NASCAR world revolves, and it's that big, beautiful 2.5-mile oval on the Florida coast.

Then again, maybe it wasn't such an easy decision. When we threw it out to the interwebs, the race between Darlington and Daytona was closer than Ricky Craven edging Kurt Busch ...