When each driver straps in for this weekend's race at Watkins Glen, he or she will have the benefit of years of racing experience in the form of hundreds of races and thousands of hours behind the wheel.
When Buddy Arrington showed up with a year-old Dodge at Jacksonville in December of 1963, the closest he had been to a NASCAR race was sitting in the grandstands at nearby Martinsville Speedway. And he finished eighth.
With Dodge's decision this week to pull out of NASCAR at the end of the 2012 season, Arrington's staunch loyalty to the Chrysler brand is worthy of review, as he soldiered on without factory support for years after the manufacturer decided to get out of the sport in 1977.
Born in 1938, Arrington began street racing around Martinsville while in his teens. His first car was a Chrysler -- he idolized the Pettys at the time -- and soon, he began thinking about getting into racing.
Without a family connection, manufacturer support or even a sponsor, Arrington began calling around to different race shops in an effort to find out more about NASCAR. Eventually, Cotton Owens offered to sell him a 1962 Dodge, and Ray Nichels and Paul Goldsmith had some used equipment they no longer needed.
According to Arrington's biography on the Arrington Performance website, "They had this truck full of parts," he said. "It really put us on the map, as far as racing."
With the help of a few friends, Arrington got the car ready, put it on a flatbed trailer and hauled it to Savannah, Ga. But qualifying was rained out just before Arrington could get on the track, pushing his debut back two weeks to Jacksonville.
That race at Jacksonville is best known for the scoring error that led to Wendell Scott's only Cup victory. Arrington remembered just being awed by the whole experience.
"I had only been in the stands of a race track before," he said. "I had never even been in the pits, and here I was, a kid, drivin' in NASCAR."
That first season, Arrington made 27 starts and amassed a grand total of $5,315 in earnings -- which doesn't seem like much now but was enough back then to pay the bills. Of course, that meant working other jobs -- like selling cars, running a gas station or working as a property manager.
"If you didn't win money racing, you didn't have the money to get home," Arrington said. "I got money from NASCAR once or twice after the races, just so I could get back home."
Still, Arrington stuck around for 26 seasons as an independent. With the exception of 1968, when his only start came in the Daytona 500, and 1972, when he made the field at only Martinsville, Arrington was at the track nearly every weekend, usually fielding a Chrysler product with No. 67 on the door.
The equipment was rarely new -- usually hand-me-downs from Petty Enterprises or other teams -- and that forced Arrington to employ a strategy of survival.
"I laid back in most races," he said. "I drove ahead of myself and when I came out of a turn, I was looking at the next one. I had to. If I tore up the car, I had to fix it, and that cost money."
And there were times when Arrington tore up the car, and himself. In the 1969 Firecracker 400, he got caught up in Cecil Gordon's crash and wound up spending two weeks in the hospital. He suffered several broken ribs and a ruptured spleen in a crash in the 1970 Daytona 500, which he considered the worst crash of his career.
But Arrington kept coming back, even after Chrysler announced its intentions to leave NASCAR in 1977. He took whatever other teams were giving away and kept Dodge on the track without any financial assistance for the next six seasons. That meant scraping together money for tires and fuel, and finding volunteers to help pit the car.
Arrington felt the body style of the Dodge Magnum was equal or better aerodynamically to the competition, and he was proven right in the 1979 Winston 500 at Talladega. Arrington surprised nearly everyone in the garage area when he qualified fourth for the race. And when the race started, Arrington was right in the thick of things.
"My Magnum was the fastest car out there," Arrington said. "I could pull out and pass them anytime, anywhere I wanted. You could hear the fans over the noise of the cars, and fans were climbing the fences with banners for me, and cheering me on."
Arrington was in the lead when he headed into the pits for service. Several of Richard Petty's crewmen had come over to lend a hand, but in the confusion over who was doing what, the gas can was left stuck in the vent as Arrington headed back on the track.
He had to pit again on the next lap to have it removed -- and lost a lap in the process. For the rest of the race, Arrington was as fast as the leading cars but couldn't get his lap back. He finished third behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
"As far as I'm concerned, I won that race," Arrington said.
Arrington stuck with Chrysler products even after the corporation no longer manufactured a body style that qualified under NASCAR's rulebook. In 1985, Arrington sold one of his two remaining cars and gave the other to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega.
As to why he kept racing Dodges and Chryslers, his explanation was simple: It's what the fans wanted to see.
"They don't care whether we're racing the Imperial, a K-Car, or a Daytona," Arrington said. "They just care because it's a Chrysler car, got Chrysler's name on it, and that's what it's all about."
After running Fords, Arrington's final race was in a Chevrolet. He still lives in Martinsville and drives a Jeep around town. His son, Joey, who acted as his father's crew chief for many years, is a well-respected engine builder and owner of a Truck Series team.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.