NASCAR was first incorporated in 1948 and ran it's first full season in 1949 and was called NASCAR Strictly Stock.
This division was renamed the "Grand National" division beginning with the 1950 season. The name Grand National was derived from England's thoroughbred horse racing event. "Grand National indicates superior qualities," said a NASCAR statement. France felt the 'Strictly Stock' label was more of a guideline for rules; 'Grand National' was a dynamic title that would have more appeal to the general public.
That year, there were 19 races making up the first Grand National Season. From 1950 through the 1970 season, there were 987 races run, with as many as 62 races run in the 1964 season.
Rather than having a fixed schedule of one race per weekend with most entrants appearing at every event, the Grand National schedule has included over sixty events in some years. Often there are two or three races on the same weekend and occasionally two races on the same day in different states.
In the early years, most Grand National races were held on dirt-surfaced short oval tracks that ranged in lap length from under a quarter-mile to over a half-mile, or on dirt fairgrounds ovals usually ranging from a half-mile to a mile in lap length. One hundred ninety-eight of the first 221 Grand National races were run on dirt tracks.
Darlington Raceway, opened in 1950, was the first completely paved track on the circuit over one mile (1.6 km) long. In 1959, when Daytona International Speedway was opened, the schedule still had more races on dirt racetracks than on paved ones. In the 1960s as superspeedways were built and old dirt tracks were paved, the number of races run on dirt tracks was reduced.
The last NASCAR race on a dirt track was held on September 30, 1970 at the half-mile State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race in a Plymouth that had been sold by Petty Enterprises to Don Robertson and rented back by Petty Enterprises for the race.
Chrysler Corp. had unexpectedly announced their factory backed efforts in 1971 would be severely reduced. Bobby Isaac and Bobby Allison had finished first and second in the 1970 Grand National point standings, and both lost their factory sponsorship for 1971. Chrysler's Gayle Porter said, "We had to cut back. There was no alternative."
Chrysler cut back from six teams to two for the 1971 NASCAR season -- and both teams would operate out of the Petty Enterprises complex. Richard Petty and Buddy Baker would be the drivers. On November 19, 1970, Ford Motor Co. dropped a bombshell. Matthew McLaughlin, Ford Sales Vice-President, announced that his company was getting out of Stock car racing -- entirely. "We believe our racing activities have served their purpose, and we propose now to concentrate our promotional efforts on direct merchandising and sale of our products through franchised dealers. Accordingly, effective immediately we are withdrawing from all forms of motorsports competition."
Two weeks after Ford pulled up stakes, NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. formed what would turn out to be the most fruitful and important relationship in the history of Stock car racing. Beginning in 1971, the Winston brand of cigarettes would sponsor a 500-mile race at Talladega -- and a special point fund worth $100,000. R.A. Rechholtz, Vice President of Marketing for R.J. Reynolds, said his company decided to sponsor the Winston 500 at Alabama International Motor Speedway "because it is the fastest race track in the world and destined, we feel, to be the number one motorsports facility of the future; which is appropriate for Winston, being the number one cigarette brand in the United States.
Ford's sudden withdrawal from racing left factory-backed stars like Junior Johnson searching for sponsorship.
"We are very excited about starting our association with NASCAR," Rechholtz added. "We intend to work closely with them in making 1971 the best year ever for the sport of Stock car racing." The Winston Cup point money would be channeled to the Grand National drivers at three intervals during the 1971 season. A $25,000 pay-off going to the Top 10 drivers in the Winston Cup point standings would be distributed on May 30. The second leg, worth an additional $25,000, would be given out after the Labor Day Southern 500. The big chunk of point money -- $50,000, would be paid to the Top 20 drivers after the conclusion of the season.
"The $100,000 posted by Reynolds for the Winston Cup will assure the Grand National division of one of the largest point funds in automobile racing history," said NASCAR President Bill France. "It will be the largest point fund in NASCAR's 23 year history. Our agreement with Winston calls for having advertising and promotional support on a nation-wide scale." Curiously, only the events of 250 miles or more would comprise the "Winston Cup Series," although the three payments would be determined by points from all races, including the 100-milers on the short tracks.
One of the first steps by R.J. Reynolds was to place a large number of ads in daily newspapers in areas where the Winston Cup Grand National drivers were scheduled to race. The ads would promote the event -- along with the Winston product. Billboards also went up along interstates and major highways. "No doubt about it," said Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway promoter Paul Sawyer, "all of this has helped us attract a large crowd for our (Richmond 500) race."
R.M. Odear, Winston Product Manager, said the newspaper advertisements and billboards would only be directed to the events on the Winston Cup Series. Any race shorter than 250 miles was not included in the promotions. "Everything we do to promote the Winston Cup also promotes all Grand National races," said Odear. "We intend on making our presence felt this season and let everyone in racing know we're in it in a big way." Winston's plunge into Stock car racing was one of the few high water marks in an otherwise troubled year.
Richard Petty enjoyed a banner year in 1971, winning 21 races in 46 starts. Including the point money and the Winston Cup bonus, his winnings came to a record $351,071. He became the first man to top the $300,000 plateau in winnings. The 1971 season was also the last year that the Winston Cup Grand National schedule consisted of 48-50 events. Winston only recognized the 'major' events as part of the Winston Cup Series in 1971. By 1972, all of the others had been removed from the tour.