NASCAR 10 Sprint Cup races to watch in 2011

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is finally upon us. Are you ready? Here are 10 must watch races to put on your calendar this year.

1- Daytona 500 - Feb. 20
This has it all. Known as the Great American Race, it’s the crown jewel of the sport. It offers tough and riveting action start to finish, with a tight pack of cars swarming across the high banks lap after lap. Throw in those stunning last-lap battles for the win and multicar crashes that leave fans in awe and you have one of the racing world’s premier events. And now it accelerates. With a brand new surface put in place during the offseason, this year’s version is even more unpredictable – but sure to create more unforgettable moments.
2- Richmond 400 - Sept. 10
Talk about pressure. This race has become the last-chance event. This year, that impact could be two-fold – the last shot to lock into the top 10 in the standings and one of those Chase for the Sprint Cup berths or the chance to win and snare one of the pair of wild-card spots. Even before the Chase, though, this was one of the most exciting events on the schedule. Racing under the lights on the tight Virginia short track causes tempers to flare and fans to spend hours on the edge of their seats. The Chase factor simply adds to what is already a tense night for competitors.
3- Talladega 499 - April 17
Talladega offers what every race fan yearns for – big, fast packs of race cars, high drama and plenty of passing. Last year’s version of the spring race featured a record number of lead changes (88), one of the closest finishes in history (.011 seconds) and plenty of excitement as crashes determined the outcome. Expect this year’s race to deliver just as much action – if not more.
4 Coca-Cola 600 - May 29
Charlotte Motor Speedway always brings a different feel to the series, perhaps because it’s a veritable home track in a sport that doesn’t really have home teams. But most of the Sprint Cup teams are based in the Charlotte area and there’s a little extra pride that goes with winning at Charlotte. Doing so in May is even more dramatic as the track hosts Sprint Cup’s longest event – the Coca-Cola 600. Drivers and teams test their stamina, equipment and patience late into the night as they battle for a year’s worth of bragging rights.
5- Bristol 500 - Aug. 27
Tempers flare. Cars try to make moves on a track that challenges even single-car runs at time. Fenders tap, tires squeal, cars spin and the evasive maneuvers begin. There’s nowhere to go, so cars simply bounce off the walls and one another and try to keep going. Seldom is the car in Victory Lane unscathed. Though it’s run at night, the August heat and the tight quarters test the self-control of the calmest of drivers. It’s a true bullring rimmed by loud and dedicated fans filling stands reaching into the sky. It’s loud, rowdy, hot and out of control. Who could ask for more?
6 Indianapolis 400 - July 31
Aside from the mere atmosphere and storied history of the long-time track, there’s the prestige and emotion that comes with a victory there. It’s not just the open-wheel drivers who covet a win here. The list of Cup drivers who have victories here highlights some of the sport’s best and brightest. Champions Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have won there. So have Ricky Rudd, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray. It’s a small group since NASCAR started racing here in 1994 – and remains a place where drivers will take a few extra risks to get the chance to kiss those bricks.
7- Darlington 500 - May 7
They don’t call this place the Lady in Black for nothing. With its rough, abrasive surface and the wall that just seems too close to those cars and sucks them in for an infamous Darlington Stripe, it’s one of the oldest and toughest tracks on the circuit. Darlington, too, boasts a storied list of winners. But it is the close finishes, that ability to be a hero on fresh tires and the wearying nature of the laps there that makes it so tough on drivers and so fascinating for fans. It’s the site of the epic, bouncing-off-one-another Ricky Craven win over Kurt Busch – and is the kind of place that promises more of the same in the future.
8- Texas 500 - April 9 on FOX
The first night race of the year, Texas offers drivers the chance to barrel through turns at high speeds while adjusting to the lights. For fans, there’s just something exciting about night races, whether it’s the fact that it hearkens back to the old days or that cars just seem flashier in those conditions. And Texas is one of those tracks where drivers can really race. It defies the cookie-cutter moniker often attached to events on the 1.5-mile ovals with its high speeds, stirring passes and battles to the finish – and now it’s going to be at night.
9- Kentucky 400 - July 9
This year, this race will be exciting not for what is known about it, but for the opposite. This marks the first time that Kentucky Speedway appears on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. It’s a Bruton Smith production, so expect extra fanfare to usher in the event. In some ways, that could actually eclipse the on-track racing. And, on this occasion as a track is added to the schedule for the first time in year, that might not be such a bad thing.
10- Budweiser Shootout - Feb. 12
No points on the line? The first real outing on a new track surface? A larger field? A series of drivers who have been idle since mid-November and are hungering to prove how much they’ve improved? What could be better? The go-for-broke Shootout features a field of past winners, champions, Chase contenders and rookies in a group that will be first to test the waters of both the newly repaved Daytona International Speedway and the first pit stops with only six men over the wall. And, again, the race is at Daytona. Anything can happen here. And most likely, it will.
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