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Auto racing has long been one of the leading sports just below the main tier in the minds of American sports fans, remaining recognizable because of big names including Mario Andretti, Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

One reason that auto racing doesn’t reside in the same stratosphere as the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball may be its fractured nature. NASCAR, the IndyCar Series, and international racing’s Formula One and just three of the multiple circuits within the sport, each utilizing different models of vehicles.

NASCAR faces an additional challenge in trying to emerge from the pack with hockey, golf, tennis, and soccer: It keeps changing the name of its most prominent series.

What is the NASCAR Cup Series?

Stock cars derive their name from the fact that the body styles of the racing vehicles resemble those of the millions of cars that are purchased annually at dealerships in the United States. NASCAR regulates aspects of the bodies, chassis, and aerodynamics to create parity among the brands.

The NASCAR Cup Series is the newest name for the top racing series for stock cars, which began with eight races in 1949 as the Grand National Division and had most recently been branded as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for three seasons. Its popularity comes from the success of top drivers including Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson.

The name is a departure from the past when the circuit incorporated brands such as Winston cigarettes or Sprint cellular service into its name. The new core sponsors, known as Premium Partners, are Busch Beer, Coca-Cola, GEICO, and Xfinity.

The NASCAR Cup Series schedule consists of weekly races beginning in February with the Daytona 500 and extending into early November with the NASCAR Cup Series Championship, the culmination of a late-series playoff process.

The process of determining a series champion begins with points being awarded in each race for place of finish and the number of laps led. After the first 26 races, the series moves into its playoff phase. Sixteen drivers are seeded based on their number of wins and overall season performance and those playoff competitors compete against each other within the full field of cars over the final 10 races.

What other names has NASCAR used for its top circuit?

NASCAR’s top series was known as the Grand National Division from 1950-71, but the sport experienced its greatest growth in recognition when it awarded naming rights to R.J. Reynolds and christened the circuit as the Winston Cup Series.

Federal regulatory policies on tobacco advertising made it impractical for R.J. Reynolds to retain its title sponsorship rights, as was the case for Virginia Slims in women’s tennis, and the Winston Cup became the Nextel Cup in 2004.

A telecommunications merger led to a name change to the Sprint Cup Series from 2008-16. Monster Energy came on board for the past three seasons.

What are the other major NASCAR series?

NASCAR operates two other significant racing series each season.

The Xfinity Series uses cars close in design and technical specifications to the NASCAR Cup Series, making it a proving ground for drivers aspiring to compete at the top level. Because racing teams often sponsor cars at both levels, Xfinity Series races are primarily run one day earlier than NASCAR Cup Series at the same location.

The third major NASCAR circuit is the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, which was created in 1995 and features modified pickup trucks.