While NASCAR fans continue to wait with bated breath for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule and all the change it is supposed to bring, the sanctioning body took a rare proactive step forward in 2020 with an aggressive schedule realignment that, while remaining within the confines of racetracks currently in agreements with NASCAR, will make the 2020 campaign look very different.
Accommodating a two-week summer break to allow for broadcast partner NBC to focus on its Olympic telecasts, the 2020 season will also end a week earlier in November. NASCAR has made a concentrated effort to put its bullrings on display in the playoffs as well, with two cutoff races and the title race now being hosted on tracks 1 mile or less in length.
Breaking down the biggest highlights of the Cup schedule changes for 2020, here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Atlanta Motor Speedway: Atlanta’s lone Cup date for 2020 will move back three weeks, marking the first East Coast event for Cup teams to tackle after the West Coast swing. The difference those three weeks could easily make in terms of weather for a track that’s struggled for attendance the last decade makes this a worthwhile schedule adjustment, because for all the attendance woes, the worn-out asphalt of Atlanta still puts on one of the best intermediate oval races the circuit has to offer.
Darlington Raceway: With the Southern 500 thriving both thanks to its rightful return to Labor Day weekend and to the success of its throwback promotions, to see this race now mark the kickoff of NASCAR’s playoffs will add some much-needed weight to an event that’s fallen short at Chicagoland Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Daytona International Speedway: Daytona’s second race date gets moved from the July 4 holiday to the final race of the regular season in late August. Hosting the final regular season race on a superspeedway greatly increases the chances of a surprise winner crashing the playoffs at the last minute, which contrived or not should pique race fans’ interests. Of course, the fact that NASCAR’s superspeedways put on tremendous races in 2019 doesn’t hurt either. Though plenty of NASCAR’s Twitterati scoffed at the idea of moving a race date in Florida smack into the middle of hurricane season, the fact that the race’s usual weekend in July has been plagued with weather delays in recent years make this a gamble worth taking.
Martinsville Speedway: There’s no venue that fared better from the 2020 schedule realignment than the shortest (and oldest) track on the circuit. Martinsville’s spring date has been moved from March to Mother’s Day weekend in May, and will hearken to some serious short track roots; the Cup race will run under the lights on Saturday night, while the support race Friday will come not from a national touring series, but from the Whelen Modified tour. Martinsville’s fall race will likely be a cold affair, but with extremely high stakes, as it will now mark the cutoff race in the Round of 8. Given the history Martinsville has as a playoff-deciding track (Joey Logano’s 2018 bump on Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth’s 2015 bulldozing of Logano, etc.), this move was frankly overdue.
ISM Raceway: The biggest renovation project that International Speedway Corporation has completed since Daytona Rising has landed the diamond in the desert the 2020 Cup title race. While it is a positive development that the NASCAR championship is being moved somewhere different, especially in the era of a one-race championship finale, ISM was hardly the showcase for Cup racing in 2019. Though the facility’s revamped layout allows for five-wide fanouts on the frontstretch, both Phoenix races this season were plagued with a lack of passing and minimal tire wear that led to virtual parades for races, despite the track being only 1 mile long. Plus, the move to Glendale, Ariz., doesn’t solve one of the biggest problems that the championship race had at Homestead-Miami Speedway: the finale race has moved from the middle of nowhere in a swamp to the middle of nowhere in the desert.
Pocono Raceway: As I wrote in July, Pocono Raceway has some of the most proactive track promoters to be found in major league stock car racing, and it deserves a tip of the cap for rolling the dice on hosting what will be the first doubleheader weekend in the history of the Cup Series. Spaced in between its traditional June and late July/early August dates, Pocono will instead host shortened Cup races on Saturday and Sunday during the last week in June, all the while hosting the Xfinity Series, Gander RV & Outdoors Truck and ARCA Menards series as well. The doubleheader concept, however, is plagued with risks. Late June in the Poconos will be just as subject to inclement weather as all of Pocono’s previous race weekends have been, and given just how packed the weekend schedule will be, this particular event looms ominously for a track with no lights. What’s more, shorter-distance races have not been a recipe for compelling shows on the lengthy 2.5-mile triangle; July’s ARCA and Truck races were lacking in any sort of compelling racing for the lead. Had Pocono found a way to incorporate a race on its triangle one day and a race on its road course the following day, this concept would be a lot more exciting for 2020.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway: The quality of the on-track product for stock cars at the Brickyard has been lacking since 1994, and since Tiregate in 2008, the attendance has left the vast 2.5-mile oval looking cavernously empty. Moving such a race to the July 4 weekend, a date during which even Daytona struggled to sell tickets, will fix neither of these woes. Instead of setting the sport back to the 1980s with a street course race, why not run the road course here instead?