Before the competitors of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series could do battle against each other at Atlanta Motor Speedway, they had to battle Mother Nature.
The Sunday forecast looked pretty grim throughout the week, calling for rain all day. Fortunately, the sanctioning body moved the start time up one hour, started the track drying process early, and the rain held off throughout the afternoon and into the evening. The Folds of Honor Quick Trip 500 actually wound up running all 500 miles. NASCAR: 1, Mother Nature: 0.
Sunday probably will not be the last time that weather is a concern in Atlanta. NASCAR moved the track’s lone race weekend to the second slot on the yearly schedule, placing the event in either late Feb. or early March. The idea was to boost Atlanta’s slumping attendance by taking advantage of any leftover excitement from the Daytona 500. However, the weather seems to be a bigger determining factor than any residual good vibes from the Great American Race.
The question of where to hold the second MENCS race of the year has been a problem for quite some time. When Rockingham Speedway held the date, it struggled with its own unpredictable weather, which no doubt contributed to the attendance woes that ultimately got the track removed from the schedule.
Auto Club Speedway did not work out much better. Fans might remember the February race there in 2008 that began on Sunday afternoon, only to be red-flagged for rain. NASCAR spent all day promising to get the race rolling again but fought weepers seeping water onto the track. It was nearly midnight before the announcement that the race would resume on Monday.
If NASCAR wanted to change up the opening weeks of the schedule in 2019, it might want to look to another venue in the Southwest to host the second race of the season.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway, traditionally the home of the third race of the year, would likely have more race day-friendly weather than Atlanta. The recently-renamed ISM Raceway in Phoenix hosted the second race from 2011 – 2014 and would be well-suited to do so again.
Let’s say the 2019 Daytona 500 is held on Feb. 24, a week later than this year. Instead of going right to Atlanta, NASCAR could move the West Coast swing up one spot on the schedule, keeping the same calendar weekends as this year. After Las Vegas, ISM and Auto Club, teams could then go to Atlanta for the fifth race of the season on March 24.
Racing at Atlanta in late March obviously would not eliminate the threat of rain, but it would give NASCAR and the fans warmer evening temperatures to work with if the race got delayed. Also, remember that Atlanta had a yearly March race for decades and as recently as 2010. Pushing it back by just a few weeks could help the track draw bigger crowds.
In fact, an early-season schedule realignment could also work to Martinsville Speedway’s benefit. The Virginia short track treated NASCAR fans to a day-into-night race in 2017, allowing the Cup Series to run under the lights at the paperclip for the first time. The trouble is that Martinsville’s current race dates in late March/early April and late October are not conducive to night racing.
Finding a new home for Atlanta’s race could give Martinsville an opportunity to grab a better date of its own. Suppose that Texas Motor Speedway’s spring race, which is no longer a night race, took the March 24 weekend, while Atlanta held its race on March 31. The Cup Series would then go to Bristol Motor Speedway on April 7 and Richmond Raceway on Saturday, April 13 before taking the customary break for Easter on April 21.
The schedule would pick up at Talladega on April 28 and finally go to Martinsville on Saturday, May 4 for the track’s first start-to-finish night race. The schedule would then proceed as normal to Kansas on Mother’s Day weekend, then to the All-Star Race at Charlotte, while holding the Coca-Cola 600 in its usual Memorial Day slot.
Following this schedule would help NASCAR accomplish several goals. The sanctioning body would keep the West Coast swing intact and not have to worry as much about rain during the first few weeks of the year. Atlanta’s attendance would improve with warmer and more predictable weather. Best of all, NASCAR could take full advantage of Martinsville’s new lights.
Obviously, there is still work to be done with NASCAR’s schedule. When the current agreement expires after 2020, the sanctioning body would be wise to add more short track races and road courses to the Cup Series’ slate of venues. In the short term, moving Atlanta’s date back a few weeks would be an easy fix to create a better schedule, especially if it could be paired with an early May Martinsville night race.
Sooner or later, Atlanta will have to be repaved, and the track will not be able to rely on its worn-out surface as a marketing strategy. Increasing the chances of a warm, sunny day, however, would likely get more fans through the gate.