Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy is looking at some scheduling changes that would benefit NASCAR and its fans.
1. A road course in the Chase
NASCAR says this is an option they are finally considering, and it’s about time. After all, road racing is a special skill and one that should be tested in crowning a champion. Plus, it adds a wild-card element to the Chase without being the total crapshoot that Talladega generally is. My choice would be Watkins Glen, a track that has hosted some pretty spectacular shows in recent years. That part of New York is stunningly beautiful in the fall, and the race could become a real destination race for fans.
With talk of International Speedway Corporation possibly taking over operations at Laguna Seca, it’s the perfect time to revisit the right turns on the schedule – I’d like to see four road courses and so would many teams. Many teams bring specialized cars for road courses, though the newer-generation cars are more versatile than they used to be. Building cars to be used just twice a year is a big expense. There are options, such as Road America and Mid-Ohio, which host the Xfinity Series anyway, as well as Laguna Seca. With the current cars, road racing provides some of the best racing fans will see, so having more just makes sense all around.
2. But not Talladega
If you watched the carnage at Daytona this past Sunday night (or Monday morning), you saw exactly why restrictor-plate racing, despite requiring a specific skill set from drivers, has no place in the current Chase format. More than 20 cars were involved in crashes to some degree, the vast majority of which were not involved in the contact that caused the crashes in the first place. In a championship format where one bad race can end a contender’s season, there should not be a race that’s little more than cars spinning on a giant roulette wheel, waiting to see whether the ball will land on their space that day.
On the other hand, the perfect spot for the race just might be the final race before the Chase, in the spot Richmond currently occupies. Fans have voiced the opinion that drivers are avoiding racing at Talladega, especially in the Chase, because the risk of crashing is just too great. But in that critical last spot before the Chase, there would be nothing but incentive to race their pants off. The drivers with wins will be, by that time, locked into the top 30 in points, so a crash won’t change their seeding much. The ones without a win will be hell-bent to get one, and because anyone can win a plate race on any given day, fans could be treated to a last-minute underdog. It could create a great championship set-up without the chance to unfairly ruin someone’s title hopes. That’s a win-win if ever there was one.
3. Daytona and Darlington by day
There’s a reason the summer race at Daytona used to be run in the morning: that’s when it’s least likely to rain in Florida in the summer. It was also before the real heat of the day for drivers and fans. After Sunday night’s ridiculous rain delay, there’s one reason to go back to racing the track in the morning and getting everyone back to the beach for the afternoon.
Darlington, too, should be raced during the day, in this case for the racing, though improved racing would be a side-effect at Daytona as well. Night racing on tracks longer than Richmond rarely produces great racing; the cool, fast track makes clean air and track position even more important, emphasizing aero push while racing on a hot, slick, loose racetrack puts a little more of the racing in the drivers’ hands. The stifling heat of a Southern summer adds to the level of difficulty for the drivers, and if fans are smart and hydrate properly, they won’t melt. Night racing being more exciting is a myth, not reality in most cases, and the series needs more races by day, not the other way around.
4. One and done on the cookie-cutters
For the most part, the 1.5-2-mile tracks are the ones that produce the worst racing, and it’s from these tracks where NASCAR needs to find the dates to add road courses and maybe another short track or two, such as Iowa Speedway for example. With the exception of Charlotte – because it’s the teams’ home track – and maybe Pocono because it’s unique and forces teams to strategize differently, there’s no need for any track in this range currently hosting two races to have both dates. Another exception would be Darlington; a second race there would be a welcome addition to the schedule. But Kansas, Michigan and Texas? Second dates for those tracks should be redistributed to tracks where the racing is better, and it would only benefit the sport in the long run.
5. Back to their roots
The original concept of the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series was for them to run more smaller venues, mainly short tracks, and it’s time for them to get back to that. Yes, standalone events have smaller crowds sometimes, but a lot of that could be remedied by having these races at tracks that don’t host national touring series races currently – tracks like South Boston, Myrtle Beach and Pikes Peak, for example. Those tracks are more likely to attract a good local crowd than the bigger ones do when they host standalone events. And even if they don’t, these aren’t Cup races and NASCAR should not expect Cup-sized crowds. TV is equally important for audience these days, and it would certainly be interesting to see if races at great venues would attract a larger audience than the current predictable companion events do. If indeed it really is about the product on the track as fans claim, a move like this one would only increase the fanbase for those series.