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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: They Come in All Shapes & Sizes – Ranking the Types of NASCAR Tracks Across America

“If God had made us all the same, life would have been boring, Daniel”.

So said my dearly departed Grandfather, the legend that was William Peters. And the old boy was right; he usually was, to be fair. And if it’s true about people, it’s certainly true about sport and NASCAR, in particular.

Can you imagine how mind numbing it would be to watch 36 races in a row at Fontana, or a season composed entirely of 500-mile Sunday afternoon races at Pocono – about a third of which would probably be blighted by poor weather? Even the best tracks in that scenario would get dull awful quick. Fans across the country would be turning off in droves after watching week after week of the Big One. And they’d be equally bored with 10 months straight of high-banked half-mile racing at Thunder Valley, regardless of how much beatin’ and bangin’ there was on offer.

Variety, as the old cliché goes, truly is the spice of life.

In the last couple of weeks here on Frontstretch, there’s been some healthy debate about the relative merits of restrictor-plate racing. I’ve fallen on the “pro” side but others – Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Smith, especially – make persuasive arguments for the “con” side. The nature of the debate and, shall we say, spirited commentary from readers got me thinking – of the different types of tracks we see across the NASCAR schedule, which form of racing do I enjoy the most?

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to divide the 22 tracks on the 36-race slate into seven categories based solely on track length. No doubt, some of you will be horrified by how I did it; but as a few of you have done in the past, please feel free to tell why I am a moron in the comments section below.

Here’s how I’m splitting up each venue, with Sprint Cup race dates in parentheses:

Short Tracks: 6 – Bristol (2), Martinsville (2), Richmond (2)
1-milers: 6 – Phoenix (2), Dover (2), Loudon (2)
1.5-milers: 11 – Atlanta (2), Darlington (1), Texas (2), Lowe’s (2), Las Vegas (1) Miami (1), Kansas (1), Chicagoland (1)
2-milers: 4 – Fontana (2), Michigan (2)
2.5-milers: 3 – Pocono (2), Indianapolis (1)
Plate Tracks: 4 – Daytona (2), Talladega (2)
Road Courses: 2 – Watkins Glen (1), Sonoma (1)

But before I start, I want to make two exceptions; neither Darlington nor Indianapolis truly belongs in their respective category. It seems wholly unfair to consider that icon of motorsport, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, alongside the “quainter” charms of Pocono Raceway. Likewise for Darlington – comparing the Lady in Black to Kansas, Vegas and Chicagoland just doesn’t feel right. So, I’m taking Darlington and Indianapolis out of consideration, giving them both very honorable mentions as two of the best and most unique stops on the circuit.

Without further ado, let’s get down to the serious business of grading the remaining 20 tracks.

Last Place – 2-milers: Fontana, Michigan

I’m being a little harsh to Michigan – it’s guilt by association to some degree – but my choice for last place was a no-brainer. I saw my first race and also my worst race (this year’s 24 hours of California) at Fontana, and I can honestly say I’ve yet to see a race there I actively enjoyed. Coming right on the heels of the Daytona 500 and immediately before the race at the infinitely more exciting Las Vegas Motor Speedway doesn’t help their cause, and “taking” Darlington’s Labor Day is the perennial nail in their coffin. Next…

Sixth Place – 2.5-milers: Pocono

1,000 miles at Pocono – what is that, some kind of an inside joke? I’m sure TV commitments would preclude any kind of change at this stage of the game, but why not have one or both of the two dates be 400-mile affairs? There has to be a way. Pocono avoids finishing last by a simple process of elimination. I dislike the track just a little less than Fontana, solely because my favorite driver runs better in Pennsylvania than he does in California.

Fifth Place – 1.5-milers: Atlanta, Texas, Lowe’s, Las Vegas, Miami, Kansas, Chicagoland

The biggest category on this list sucks up a whopping 11 races – give or take a percentage point or two – 30% of the schedule. The route to the Sprint Cup begins with these tracks; in that, there’s no question. I won’t deny individually each track can produce great racing, but as a group they’re just, well, a little bit ho-hum compared to the remaining four categories.

Here’s where it’s starts to get a little tougher…

Fourth Place – 1-Milers: Phoenix, Dover, Loudon

Dover has to be one of the most underrated tracks on the circuit. I love watching races at the Monster Mile, and that Monster trophy has to be the most ridiculous yet brilliant trophy in all of motorsports. This was the hardest choice in the entire list, as this trio of tracks is a fine group. Fourth, but narrowly.

Third Place – Road Courses: Watkins Glen, Sonoma

I have to admit, I absolutely love the road courses in both Cup and Nationwide. Maybe it’s growing up with Formula 1, but any race with Boris Said in the field is fine by me. I think, to some extent, feast is famine; with only two dates on the Sprint Cup schedule, you’re always left wanting more. If I had any say in the matter, I’d find a way to add a road course to the Chase.

Second Place – Plate Tracks: Daytona, Talladega

I think I made my positive point of view on plate racing crystal clear last week. Yes, I know even the great Dale Earnhardt said it wasn’t real racing; but it’s pure racing excitement nonetheless. For the 30-car packs, the epic scale of the Great American Race, those fans in Alabama, and, quite frankly, the sheer spectacle of any of the four races either trackside or on TV, plate tracks finish second on my list.

First Place – Short Tracks: Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond

It seems appropriate that the three tracks in first place on my list are steeped in the history and roots of our great sport. Martinsville is one of the original eight circuits, and they’ve been turning laps at Richmond since 1953; Bristol is the junior member of the trio, with racing at Thunder Valley starting back in 1961. I know not every race is an instant classic, but as we saw on Saturday night – and also on Friday night in the Nationwide race – at Richmond, just like at Bristol and Martinsville, anything can and usually does happen.

So, that’s my list. If you see it differently then let me know…