The most popular form of auto racing in the United States. NASCAR is an acronym for the "National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing."
The organization (and sport of stock car racing) has its roots in the American Deep South during the Prohibition period, when "moonshiners," as they were called, would soup up their cars so they could outrun the police. After Prohibition ended, these moonshiners found themselves out of a job and instead of looking for more illegal activity, began racing against each other. It also has roots in Daytona Beach, Florida, where some people would race on the hard-packed sand beaches. Many speed records were in fact broken on those beaches. By the 1940s, these races with the former moonshiners became popular entertainment in the rural areas of the South. After years of having to put up with (some) unscrupulous and (more) unorganized promoters, several drivers and promoters, headed by Bill France Sr, founded the organization in Daytona Beach in 1948. It's that rare North American sports organization that has never had its predominance challenged (viz. USFL, World Hockey Association, ABA, innumerable attempts at new major leagues, etc.), which is testimony to France's business clout, vision, and force of personality.
The early years of NASCAR were mostly a period of growth. Most of the early tracks were short dirt tracks in the South. The first race of the "Strictly Stock" series (later to be known as the Winston Cup, NEXTEL Cup, Sprint Cup, and now the Monster Energy Cup, but then accurately named as the cars were stock right down to column-shifted transmissions whose linkages could not be rushed) was held in 1949 at Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina. The first series champion was a man by the name of Red Byron. The only track still on the series schedule from the 1949 season is Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. The first completely paved track and the first over one mile long was Darlington Speedway, which had its first race in 1950. In 1957, the new "fuelie" Chevrolets cleaned up so thoroughly that NASCAR banned fuel injection (a ban that persisted until the 2012 season, almost 20 years after the last carbureted road cars disappeared from US new-car showrooms); in retaliation GM not only pulled out but maneuvered the Automobile Manufacturers' Association trade group into banning its members from supporting racing in any way (a ban that was worked around within a year and gone within the decade). Then, in 1959, everything changed. For years, the Daytona event had been run on the Beach-Road Course, a half-beach, half-road course that used half of the Florida State Road A1A. Because the event was attracting large crowds — and because the occasional accident where said crowds became human guard rails — there needed to be a permanent track to race on, so the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway was built, and the first running of what would be known as the Daytona 500 was run on February 22, 1959. Today, the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's Super Bowl and World Series, unique in that it's the first event on their yearly schedule.
The 1960s and 70s were a time of growth for the organization and the sport of stock car racing. This is the time when the sport and organization really began to gain notice around the country and the world. Despite some races run in the Northern United States (and Canada) in the early years, stock car racing was still considered a Southern sport. However, with TV coverage, the sport began to find some popularity outside the South. In the 1960s, the Daytona 500 was usually taped and presented as part of ABC's Wide World of Sports package. However, in 1974, ABC began to broadcast the race itself live, starting with the halfway point. The first live, flag-to-flag coverage of the race was in 1979 by CBS, which included a memorable last-lap crash between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, which resulted in a fist fight between the two drivers and Donnie's brother Bobby. The 60s and 70s were dominated by Richard Petty, who later became known as "The King", winning 7 Grand National (now Monster Energy Cup) championships and 200 races total.
The 1980s saw a slow, steady rise in NASCAR's popularity, in part thanks to a driver by the name of Dale Earnhardt, who won four Winston Cup championships in that decade. During that decade, the cars became less and less "stock" and turned into actual, purpose-built race cars; the days of buying a car and driving it to the track to race were over. The sport's slow expansion would turn into a boom in the 1990s, thanks largely to a driver by the name of Jeff Gordon, who was from — shock! — Californianote and — horrors! — clean-cut, photogenic, and a good interview. In 2001, NASCAR lost Earnhardt, its biggest star, who had won seven Cup championships by that time. He was killed in a wreck in the final lap of the Daytona 500, which forced the organization to review its safety policies.
Today, NASCAR is one of the most popular sports leagues in the world, with audiences and drivers from around the world. However, this popularity has been waning in recent years. Much of it can be blamed on Brian France constantly making changes. While some changes reflect the modern reality of sports politics (such as the move from traditional tracks to newer facilities located nationwide), others see many of the changes as a cash-grab or a way to rig races in the favor of whatever driver the sanctioning body wants to win. The decline really set in when the fifth-generation car (known as the Car of Tomorrow) was introduced in 2007. The car was met negatively, as there was little, if any, difference between the four manufacturers (Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, and Toyota), which NASCAR attempted to justify by trying to make it more about driver skill rather than manufacturer support. The car also nixed the rear spoiler in favor of a wing, making the car look more like a touring car than a stock car; this wing was re-replaced by the spoiler in 2010 after it was found that the wing made the roof flaps (which are supposed to set the car down when it spins) useless and caused several airborne crashes, one of which looked eerily similar to Bobby Allison's 1987 crash at Talladega that led to the restrictor plate being mandated at Talladega and Daytona starting in 1988. In addition, the Car of Tomorrow was also very boxy, and the racing product degraded, as a result.
In 2011, the Car of Tomorrow received a slight redesign to the nose, once again allowing the grille area to resemble their street counterparts. This led to a new form of racing known as the two-car tandem, which was heavily criticised, even though it did create two first-time winners at Daytona (Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, and David Ragan in the Coke Zero 400). The cars received a new superspeedway package in 2012 that made the tandem all but impossible, though it remained prevalent in the Nationwide Series (now Xfinity Series) until a crash at the 2013 Drive4COPD 300 that saw Kyle Larson fly into the catchfence at the end of the race, ripping out the front of the car and injuring 33 fans. That same year, the Car of Tomorrow received a new body known as the Gen-6 car, which has more clear-cut differences between the Chevy, Ford, and Toyota models (Dodge left the sport after 2012 when Penske switched back to Ford, and no other major teams would switch).
NASCAR is frequently the victim of Snark Bait and Public Medium Ignorance, ranging from light jabs (such as the worn-to-death "left turn contest" crack that provides the page image for the latter) to vicious attacks on both the sport and its fans. A backronym popularized among NASCAR's vocal detractors is "Non-Athletic Sport Centered Around Rednecks", which perfectly crystallizes the most common complaints about the sport; some have even stated that NASCAR (along with all forms of motorsport) are not sports because they don't involve physical activitynote and/or a ball. Because of its roots in the rural South, NASCAR is heavily associated with stereotypes of that region (see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, an Affectionate Parody of the sport, for one of the canonical examples). Even if you are an Ivy League grad from Boston, admitting to being a NASCAR fan is an easy way to get called a redneck, although this is becoming less the case as the sport's popularity spreads beyond the South.
In addition, a fair number of motorsport fans, particularly European ones (among them the hosts of Top Gearnote ), like to contend that NASCAR requires less skill than other motorsports like Formula One and rally racing, as nearly all of the races take place on oval circuits instead of the more technical road courses found outside NASCAR. While the courses may be "simpler" from a technical standpoint, they require a completely different set of skills to race successfully on; a fair number of Formula One drivers have floundered when making the jump to NASCAR because they underestimated how big a shift this is. NASCAR even has a sanctioned series in Europe known as the NASCAR Whelen Euro Tour.