From sun up to sun down, track packed with action
A day at a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is just that -- a full day, one that begins before the sun comes up and hours before the green flag drops.
From pre-race inspection, to pre-race introductions to the on-track action itself, race day is a blur of action for both the drivers and spectators.
Below is a timeline of what a race day might look like for a Sunday afternoon race that begins at 2 p.m. ET.
7 a.m. ET
The garage area isn't even open yet, but various NASCAR officials will arrive and begin setting up shop for the day. Some sit at the media center, a building found somewhere in the track's infield, and some sit in the press box -- above the stands -- to get a bird's-eye view and better manage the day's events.
8 a.m. ET
The Sprint Cup Series garage is open for business. Drivers, crew members and crew chiefs are permitted to open their garage bays, unload their vehicles and do any other work necessary to prepare for the race. They cannot, however, make major changes to their cars, which had to have already passed post-qualifying inspection and must pass pre-race inspection as well. Replacing an engine, for example, would send a driver to the rear of the 43-car field as punishment.
With the garage open, fans have the opportunity to loiter and try to spot their favorite driver, provided they have the appropriate identification. Both a "Hot Pass" and a "Cold Pass" are available for fans to purchase, and both provide incredible access unmatched in any other sport. A "Hot Pass" is the king of them all and allows fans into the garage and along pit road at all points during the race weekend; a "Cold Pass" provides that access as well, but is not valid when the garages "goes hot."
8:15 a.m. ET
It's time for pace-car rides. Both the specific speedway and NASCAR offer this opportunity to dignitaries of the sport, media members, select fans and others. Often, current and former drivers give these rides in the official pace-car and offer an incredible amount of information during the trip around the track. Tony Stewart at Daytona International Speedway, for example, explained banking while nonchalantly getting as close to the wall as possible -- at well over 100 mph. Ward Burton has given rides at Texas Motor Speedway, and Justin Allgaier demonstrated the best way to get around Iowa Speedway at the track's first stand-alone event of the year.
10 a.m. ET
Fans begin trickling into the track in earnest, and you get the first real scent of meat going down on the grill. The camping areas begin to teem with people, many of whom have been on the property and camped out for 72 hours. Folding lawn chairs come out, food and drink is consumed and the track begins to buzz.
It's time for the driver/crew chief meeting, which is held at various locations. Sometimes it's in the NASCAR Nationwide Series garage, sometimes it's in a building in the infield. All drivers and crew chiefs are required to attend. If they are absent, the driver is sent to the back of the field as a penalty. Fans who know the time of the meeting and where it is held often try and walk with their favorite drivers and get an autograph.
The meeting is a chance to Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby and/or race director David Hoots to formally go over the track rules. They will discuss the restart line, and where the zone ends, and also go over pit-road speeds and procedures. Special sponsors or other representatives are also introduced and applauded.
Although these meetings are generally a quick, quiet affair with few questions, sometimes drivers will speak up.
For example, at Kansas Speedway one day after Kyle Busch wrecked Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series race, Keselowski asked NASCAR President Mike Helton the following: "One of the things that was distinguished as not racing 100 percent was intentional wrecking. I'm curious if you could define that a little further for drivers so I know exactly what that means."
Also, after questions emerged following a late restart in the regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR tweaked its qualifying procedure. That led to questions from Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. the next week at Chicagoland Speedway.
1 p.m. ET
This is usually the time where the garage goes "hot," meaning those with Hot Passes are permitted to stay in the garage and surrounding area. With the driver meeting out of the way, most drivers will lay low in their respective haulers. Those in the garage will often sign autographs, unless they are in the garage bay with their crew, looking at the car or talking strategy. Meanwhile, at this point, most of the cars have either been cleared in pre-race inspection or are in the process of being inspected.
1:30 p.m. ET
It's time for driver introductions. All drivers in the starting field will be announced to the crowd, and usually take a lap around the track in a car or truck. A swarm of people are on the track at this time, including family and friends of the drivers, NASCAR officials and employees, media members and those with Hot Passes. The folks on the track are mere feet away from the drivers and can be seen posing for pictures up on the banking or by the start/finish line.
Folks in the grandstands are typically finishing up whatever concession food they've purchased and are settling into their seats, tuning their scanners or radios and putting on headphones.
While the drivers are introduced, NASCAR officials in the tower are finalizing everything. Hoots checks in with spotters and other workers, making sure the radios are working. Timing and scoring monitors are on and waiting.
1:50 p.m. ET
Driver introductions conclude after approximately 20 minutes, harkening the start of pre-race ceremonies. The NASCAR tower continues its final pre-race checklist out of the public eye. Meanwhile, outside, the introduction of the colors, an invocation, the national anthem and often, a fly-over, signal that racing is near.
The start-your-engines command comes next from a celebrity or dignitary, and Hoots gives the command himself via radio. Usually, it's "OK gang, fire 'em up."
2:10 p.m. ET
The pace car leads the cars onto the track for warm-up laps. The NASCAR command center will radio out any vehicles that need to go to the rear of the field. The tower will communicate with spotters on the track to look for potential debris. Once the warm-up laps are complete, the pace car heads down pit road.
2:18 p.m. ET
The command center keeps a watchful eye on … well, everything. Spotters report when teams complain of debris, and the tower relies on those spotters to find it -- if it's there. There's a report whenever a car goes behind the wall to the garage, and again if that car comes back onto the track or officially declares itself out.
Spotters in each turn of the oval chime in if there's a wreck, or something that could garner consideration for throwing a caution flag -- which Hoots does by hollering "Put it out!" over the radio. The tower also studies the timing and scoring feed to determine pit-road penalties, and then communicates that to the appropriate teams.
Fans in the stands, meanwhile, have an array of ways to follow the race. In addition to the best tool available -- their eyes -- those in the stands can complement the experience by listening to a Sprint scanner, in which they can tune in to live driver and crew chief radio feeds.
After taking the checkered flag and showing off with a burnout, the race winner goes to Victory Lane for a celebration -- and interviews.
Meanwhile, the drivers that finished second and third are whisked to the media center for interviews. Eventually, the race winner, the winning crew chief and winning team owner will come into the media center as well for interviews.
The garage area is a scramble, with fans, sponsors, officials and media members all there. Teams try to load their cars into their transporters quickly to get on the road and back to the shop.
Those who camped out will often go back, re-fire up the grill, cook dinner and flip on a television or radio. Hours later, after the sun has set, the track is quiet and the traffic has cleared, they too will depart.