Did You Notice? … The 2020 NASCAR schedule brings with it real, meaningful change? It’s just the tip of the iceberg for an overhaul that could be even larger come 2021.
For now, the 36-race schedule kept all tracks signed under the current five-year sanctioning agreement that expires at the end of the 2020 season. But many find themselves with a totally different set of dates on their hands. Let’s break down what NASCAR did, a real effort to recalibrate both the regular and postseason dates on the calendar.
NASCAR Playoffs, Round of 16: Darlington Raceway keeps its iconic Labor Day slot. But the Southern 500 has extra meaning again as the kickoff for NASCAR’s 10-race postseason. What better place for title contenders to emerge than the hardest oval to drive on the circuit? It also limits the amount of testing teams can use in the regular season to prepare; there’s no other track out there that mirrors Darlington’s egg-like size and shape.
The Lady In Black will break some hearts and remains the last race before NFL games start distracting fans. But they’ll have more reason to get hooked the rest of the round. Two short tracks, Richmond Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway, make up the final two events. Sparks will fly in the Bristol night race as it becomes the elimination event of the round. Most importantly, no cookie-cutter tracks are inside the first three races of the playoffs. Driver skill will come to the forefront instantly.
Daytona’s new regular-season finale: I love the idea of bookending the regular season with Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500 should never be knocked off its perch as the season opener; I’m glad rumors of its shift were greatly exaggerated. Instead, it’s the July 4th event which moves to the regular season finale Aug. 29, the perfect replacement for Indianapolis.
We still don’t know how Daytona will race without restrictor plates. But assuming plate parity still exists there, the chance for an underdog (and playoff Cinderella) breaking hearts has never been higher. That was always the problem with NASCAR’s regular-season finale; it was rare for anyone to break in (or fall out) of the postseason. In fact, it hasn’t happened once under the current format (2014-present).
But now teams on the bubble will have to stay on their toes and every full-time driver will still have hope. Cue the fireworks….
Postseason diversity. The rub is always that NASCAR has too many cookie-cutter tracks. They’re still there. But the 10-race postseason is now divided up into three short track races, a road course, a plate race, Darlington and three cookie-cutter tracks. The 10th track and site of the playoff finale, ISM Raceway, is a one-mile oval.
That’s the type of diversity fans were looking for to produce a better champion. It’s also putting your more interesting tracks in the postseason instead of burying them on a meaningless June weekend. For NASCAR to make the postseason relevant, they have to go all in with their best tracks and realignment was a big step in that direction.
An Olympic Break: A two-week break for the Olympics, which NBC supposedly insisted on, is good for all sides involved. NASCAR doesn’t have to deal with a knockout ratings punch and a potential loss of momentum midsummer. Meanwhile, NBC can move all its top resources over to Tokyo and its biannual sports ratings bonanza.
The one race that does conflict with the Olympics, Aug. 9, (Michigan International Speedway) comes on the day of the closing ceremonies. By then, the Olympic finale can intertwine in a way with NASCAR that’s positive. Expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. promos galore.
It’s shorter…. and more sensible. The season ends one week earlier, on Nov. 8 due to Pocono Raceway’s doubleheader weekend (more on that in a minute). There’s still too much overlap with the NFL but at least there’s a slight reduction in weeks on the road. Martinsville’s spring race has also been relocated to May, giving teams a month at their home base in Charlotte. Teams (and their families) will appreciate that.
ISM as the finale. Phoenix was perfect as the sport’s penultimate race. But the finale? Really? The reconfigured track has been good, not great, since swapping the start/finish line. Sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. snuck to victory in 2015. The 2017 race was a classic with both Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin taking their best shot. But it’s not an every year thing.
New grandstands will be comfy for fans and I’m sure NASCAR is thinking the track will get better with age. But don’t you want your finale to be the best racing on the circuit? Phoenix is a B+ track and shouldn’t your finale bring your A game?
The sport will also move from Martinsville, now the Round of 8 elimination race and travel 3,000 miles away for the final weekend. If the sport’s oldest short track is that late in the game now, why not make it the season finale? The grandstand size is comparable to Homestead-Miami Speedway and it’s located just two hours from NASCAR’s Charlotte hub.
We’ll see, but I expect ISM to be a one-year solution.
Pocono doubleheader. I don’t mind NASCAR messing with the doubleheader concept. But using Pocono as the guinea pig? That’s the wrong track to do it. This little independent has done such a great job marketing its races, especially considering they’ve been less than two months apart. The track also hasn’t been the most conducive to quality competition but they’ve outmarketed and at times outdrawn their opponent in the market, Dover International Speedway.
Now, NASCAR’s doubleheader concept puts both races in one weekend out in the Pocono mountains. It limits the income and also forces two straight Pocono races down people’s throats. That track configuration is not exactly the type you want to see back-to-back, 400-mile events. Hopefully, they’ll shorten the length?
And what about the weather? Rain has haunted Pocono races during the summer. This experiment might be better suited for a place like Charlotte instead. What if you did the oval on a Saturday and the road course on a Sunday? Or do it with another intermediate and use two different track configurations.
Indy on July 4th. NASCAR has no clue how to handle the Brickyard 400. There. I said it. Two years as the season finale and now it’s headed to a holiday. Hey, kids! Let’s head out to Indiana for July. It could be 90 degrees, so we’ll burn up in the grandstands and for what? The race once again has limited playoff meaning and has literally zero tradition surrounding July 4th.
Keep in mind Kentucky Speedway, the track closest to it literally has a Cup race the following weekend. That’s going to help draw a bigger crowd?
TRACKS IN DANGER
Chicagoland Speedway. They’ve moved it to a random Sunday in June, now just a handful of weeks before the Indy race July 4th. It feels like too many tracks in the midwest close together and one’s going to have to go. Come 2021, don’t you see NASCAR hanging on to the Brickyard’s history instead? (Whether or not they should?)
Auto Club Speedway. The crowd was nothing to speak of this past March. NASCAR didn’t move it into the playoffs nor did it do much besides keep it as part of the west coast swing. It’s up for a repave soon, like it or not, and I don’t see ISC sinking resources into a track they don’t consider part of its long-term future.
Dover International Speedway. Fellow independent Pocono Raceway lost a weekend instead with its 2020 doubleheader. But the crowds have been awful and neither race is now part of the playoffs. That makes the Monster Mile expendable without at least some aesthetic improvements.
Rumors are rampant about what NASCAR will do in 2021 and beyond. The Nashville Fairgrounds, Road America and South Boston Speedway are just three of many tracks mentioned as possibilities. Cookie-cutter ovals may also make road courses ala the Charlotte ROVAL to stay viable for multiple dates.
The 2020 edition tells us to expect those types of adds as there’s a renewed focus on short tracks. The Gen-7 rollout needs to have the best chance at success and I don’t think you get it by adding a second race back to Auto Club.
Also, keep an eye on how the doubleheader fares and whether NASCAR will take a look at Eldora for Cup. It’s a bit surprising they didn’t add a midweek race, too, considering how much it had been debated. Why not try something like running a track with lights (Richmond) in the middle of the summer on a Wednesday?