NASCAR is in the midst of a brand-new experiment this season: heat races in the XFINITY Series.
NASCAR has used heat races before in the Camping World Truck Series at Eldora, using multiple races to set the starting lineup for the main event, but until 2016 the NXS ran full-length events, lap one to lap whatever, with no stoppages except for cautions and rain. This year, however, the series is contesting four races broken down into three segments: two heats and the main event – run at each of the Dash 4 Cash events on the NXS schedule.
The past two races at Bristol and Richmond were the inaugural events, with Dover in a couple of weeks and Indianapolis later this summer rounding out the schedule. With four heat races having been run so far, it’s worth taking a look at whether or not this race format is living up to the hype. Are they reminiscent of short-track Saturday nights or are have they come across as a derivative of follow-the-leader dashes sometimes seen during the Sprint All-Star Race?
IT’S A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
I’ll be the first to admit that the heat races aren’t perfect. Nothing is, though. What’s great about the NXS heats is that it cuts the field in half for a chunk of the race, giving teams a better chance at being seen by fans in the stands and television. When there is a runaway leader like we’ve seen through the four heats so far – each winner has led every lap of their respective heats – the television crews pan through the field more to show what’s going on.
Of course, that means smaller teams like those of JD Motorsports and Kaulig Racing can get some air time. Newer, lesser known drivers such as Brennan Poole and Brandon Jones get their cars shown on television, the ultimate way to ensure that they keep sponsorship down the line as they continue to learn the ropes of the series. Having half as big a field doubles a team’s chances to get air time, but only if the teams are doing something spectacular.
Which is why the Dash 4 Cash promotion is a perfect avenue to utilize heat races. Viewers know going in that the top two finishing XFINITY-only drivers in each heat have a shot at winning $100k when the feature is over. It isn’t just incentive for the drivers to push and make sure they are in the top two spots, but it ensures that eyeballs will focus on those battles because they are such an integral part of the race.
Drivers like Elliott Sadler and Brendan Gaughan might not have gotten the air time that they’ve received (small as it is) if they weren’t marching through the field attempting to finish in the top two spots. But they were charging, and they were shown on television, and that’s what ultimately makes sponsors happy – getting their logo on camera.
I’d call the heat races a step in the right direction and I’d challenge NASCAR to run even more on a weekend. Rather than run two moderately-distanced heats, why not run four shorter heats, with the top-finishing NXS driver qualifying for the Dash 4 Cash? Rather than the second-place driver being content to wait for the main event, they’d have to go and push the issue to make it in. It could very well lead to more last-lap bump and runs heading to the checkered, and that’s a win for nearly everyone except the bumped driver.
Heat races are also known for paring down the field, and while I don’t think eliminations should be held during the races, I could see NASCAR using the heat races to set the field much like the Daytona Duels set the Daytona 500 starting lineup. If more than 40 cars show up, the lowest-finishing cars in each heat would be sent home to ensure a lineup of no more than 40 cars.
And lastly, why not mandate that a lap lost during a heat is carried over to the main event? This way teams are forced to race hard during a heat to maintain a lead-lap starting position in the main event. Set the field by lead-lap finishers in each heat making up one line, with lapped-down cars rounding out the field. NASCAR could issue a lucky-dog to the first car a lap down in each heat, and then send all 40 cars onto the track. This way heat laps count toward the main event and a race scheduled for 300 circuits isn’t run with 200.
Heat races are a way of combining the short track past with the new school future, and with a little tinkering they could put on some of the best events of the year.
IT ISN’T THE FIX THE XFINITY SERIES NEEDS
The past two races in the XFINITY Series have been compelling; more so than usual. Roaring around short tracks has certainly spiced up a series that has been known for being dominated by Sprint Cup stars.
Adding heat races as part of the Dash 4 Cash program was a wise choice by NASCAR, no doubt about it. However, there are numerous problems with it that are not being fixed — at least for the remainder of the Dash 4 Cash events.
To start, the racing in the heat events has been abysmal. The lack of action is astonishing, creating a void in the viewer’s mind as to why it is even happening in the first place. But most of all, it has done absolutely nothing to change the competition.
Attempting to spice things up, NASCAR made a bold move in bringing heat races to the XFINITY Series. It’s a move that must be applauded, especially considering how difficult it is to make something like it occur. As dirt tracks and short tracks across America use heat races, it seemed like a great idea to bring it to NASCAR competition.
However, with a limited number of laps to swap positions — 50 at Bristol and 35 at Richmond — what is the point? After all, it is just qualifying. If there is not going to be many position changes during the heat races, why not just stick to knock-out qualifying? Why waste the time, gas, tires and equipment if there won’t be much of a change from regular qualifying?
During the pair of heat races at Richmond, Ty Dillon (winner of race No. 2) and Cole Custer were the only drivers in the top 10 to gain more than four spots within the 35 laps. Out of the twin 35-lappers, Spencer Gallagher gained the most positions, advancing nine spots to finish 11th in the second heat.
Throughout heat No. 1, the average number of positions lost or gained was at a mere 1.7 spots. In heat No. 2, the result was similar, with an average of 1.9 positions swapped.
While the heat races are a solid idea on paper, they have not done much to spice up competition. Drivers and fans alike have not been compelled by the heat races.
That’s not to say that heat races should be thrown off the table completely. But with the lack of entertainment, which NASCAR desired so desperately to help the XFINITY Series regain its prowess, something needs to be done.
Why mess with qualifying when nothing was wrong with it in the first place? Personally, I love traditional qualifying. There was nothing like relaxing and watching single-car runs attempting to pick up a cloud or two during their runs, praying that they had the right draw to help put them near the top of the starting lineup.
As NASCAR looks to change things up, it’s obvious that heat races will become a part of the sport’s changing ways, which is OK. However, an inverse of the field during heats or at least putting the drivers designated for Cup Series points will certainly spice things up for a lackluster attempt at making qualifying something it will never be.