The 2020 schedule for the NASCAR Cup Series was announced on Tuesday (March 26) with more changes than in recent years combined. The question is: Did NASCAR get it right? Frontstretch’s Amy Henderson and Clayton Caldwell debate.
Sure, NASCAR made changes…but they missed the mark
When the 2020 Cup Series schedule was released, there were some definite changes and departures from the same old, same old of recent years. But where NASCAR had the opportunity to make a real impact and set a tone for 2021, when more changes would, at least in theory, be possible, the sanctioning body fell short of the mark.
To be fair here, it’s not all bad. Atlanta Motor Speedway deserved a better date and (sort of) got one, as did Martinsville Speedway’s spring event. Homestead-Miami Speedway is a good fit in the spring when NASCAR struggles to find venues warm enough to put on a good race weekend. I’m a purist, but even I’ll admit the doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway intrigues me, and if it works, the overall length of the season could be cut considerably in the future… that’s good. The Southern 500 to open the playoffs? Yes, please.
But that’s about it as far the good parts.
So what’s wrong? Let’s start with NASCAR’s complete and utter disregard for tradition. I guess we should thank our lucky stars that moving Darlington to the playoffs didn’t affect its Labor Day weekend date (in 2020, anyway) after fans fought for so long for it to be returned to its rightful place. But moving the July 4 weekend special from Daytona International Speedway is nearly as egregious, especially considering it went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, easily the worst track on the calendar.
NASCAR attempted to cover for the move by making Daytona the last race of the regular season. Some don’t like the idea of a superspeedway race being the cutoff, but it makes sense. The field is generally set, and a race at a superspeedway does give the best chance of a surprise entrant while really only endangering a driver at the back of the top 16 in points who is unlikely to contend anyway.
But it should have been the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway moved to the cutoff spot and therefore out of the playoffs, where the roll-the-dice nature of superspeedway racing has no business deciding a champion.
More on the playoff schedule in a minute, but the second worst idea here is adding at least one more night race to the mix. Granted, it’s at Martinsville, where it will have less of a negative impact than at an intermediate track, but there are way too many night races already.
I have yet to figure out why race fans complain about boring racing and then want more night races. A hot, slick track will provide a better race than a cold one 99 percent of the time. I suppose the surface at Martinsville on a May night won’t be much colder than it is on a March day, so there’s that. While we’re on the subject, Darlington’s playoff race should be a daytime affair too, at least if it’s to open the title hunt in the best possible way.
Okay, now we can talk playoffs. The positives are the opener at Darlington and the penultimate race at Martinsville. The not-so-positives start with the three 1.5-mile tracks in the 10-race span. While they have a place, because so much of the season is run on them and they need to be a part of the championship picture, the problem is that if you include Darlington, four intermediates is too many. What would have worked better: opening the playoffs at Darlington and closing the season at Atlanta, giving a nod to the days when the season did end there. Atlanta is generally the best of the 1.5-milers anyway, at least until the inevitable repave happens.
That would leave room for Dover International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the final 10-race span. Had Talladega been moved to the 26th race, a third intermediate might be easier to swallow, perhaps Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
To be fair to NASCAR again, they’re backed somewhat into a corner next season in that the tracks have contracts through the end of the season and therefore, the owners cannot lose a race outright.
A year from now will be very telling. NASCAR still has an elephant in the room in the form of the track owners, especially Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and Bruton Smith. SMI will not take kindly to the suggestion of losing dates at any tracks in 2021 and could tie NASCAR up in lawsuits should the sanctioning body try. As of now, the France family owns both NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., so theoretically, at least, taking races from themselves shouldn’t lead to litigation.
NASCAR made a show of changing things up this year, at least, and may be willing to make further changes when the current track deals are up. But the changes made were not as meaningful as NASCAR would like fans to think and include some outright bad decisions. Is it great that they’re willing to at least take a swing at it after years of stagnation? Definitely. But the changes themselves don’t really stand up to a closer look. Time to hit the drawing board again. -Amy Henderson
Not as bad as you think…
The 2020 schedule is out and there are a lot of changes to shuffle through. While I don’t like losing the traditional July Fourth weekend at Daytona, there are some really awesome things about the schedule.
I like the fact that Atlanta has been moved back a bit. The racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway has always been great, but they’ve been put in a bad spot the last few years, piggybacking Daytona on the schedule. Most of the fans in that area spend their money to go to the biggest race of them all and can’t go to Atlanta. Giving them some breathing room from Daytona should help a bit. The weather has also been an issue at times for Atlanta, and with some nicer and warmer weather, I believe it will help the track immensely.
I also like the fact that the “West Coast Swing” is now right after Daytona. Teams can spend all offseason working on the cars to go out west, and when we come back to the east coast, we won’t have to go back out toward the west coast until we race at Sonoma Raceway in June. I think the weather out west at that time of year is awesome and that makes a lot more sense.
The best thing about the new schedule, however, is the amount of diversity there is in the playoffs. Round one begins with Darlington and is followed up by two short tracks, Richmond Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway. All three races are what are considered ‘driver’s racetracks’ because you don’t have to rely so much on aerodynamics.
The second round also has some cool diversity with a mile-and-a-half track at Las Vegas, a superspeedway race at Talladega and it ends with the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The third round has Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in it, but it ends with one of the best tracks on the circuit, Martinsville. ISM Raceway is the new finale, which I’m indifferent about, but that track usually provides some pretty decent racing.
What I really love about the new playoff schedule is it gives the potential to have an underdog in the Championship Four. For example, if a team that struggles on the cookie-cutter tracks gets into the playoffs, they are not doomed from the start. The previous playoff schedule had just two short tracks and more cookie-cutter tracks than anything else. You had to be great on the cookie cutters to have any remote shot at moving to the final four. Now, round one is a round full of driver’s racetracks, round two features both Talladega and the Roval where anything can happen and round three ends with Martinsville, another driver’s racetrack. You still have to be great to win the championship, but it evens the playing field a bit better than it did in the past.
I also love the fact that we will see night racing at Martinsville for the first time. Martinsville is an awesome racetrack and placing its first event in May gives it a chance for better weather and allows it to be a nice race. The newly installed lights have been used a few times, but it will be cool to see such a great racetrack under the lights. It could be one of the most popular stops on the NASCAR schedule.
While the schedule isn’t perfect, it’s a lot better than what we’ve had. I think everyone can agree that the schedule has been stale over the past decade and the change of pace will be a lot of fun to see just what that does to the teams and drivers who have to change the way they race due to this schedule. It should be a lot of fun. -Clayton Caldwell