1. New Pavement, Old Problems
Texas Motor Speedway was a tale of two races Sunday (July 19). The final stage produced plenty of drama worth watching: frantic restarts, a fateful mistake by rookie Quin Houff and pit strategy that ultimately decided the outcome. Austin Dillon‘s surprise victory was the cherry on top that woke most fans up, at least, during the closing laps.
But could you imagine if this race ended after stage two instead?
Time and time again Sunday, we saw the same problem at a Texas track once known as one of the better intermediates: not enough room to pass. Despite adding a traction compound in the corners to provide more grip, Texas was about 1 1/2 lanes wide for all 500 miles.
It wasn’t enough.
Drivers who were markedly faster would get stuck in traffic for laps at a time, nearly turning their cars into scrap metal simply for trying to get side-by-side. Tire falloff was near zero, putting an emphasis on two things that often translate into “sleeping pill” for race fans: track position and clean air.
Why? The answer is simple: TMS got repaved. Not this year. Not the year before. Back in 2017. Three years in, the track still is suffering from what should have been an improvement: fresh pavement. The need to repave asphalt, something that happens naturally on thousands of roads in this country each year, has become a type of automatic NASCAR nightmare the sport cannot stop.
Let’s play this silliness out for a second. Right now, to produce the best type of NASCAR racing on a 1.5-mile oval like Texas … you need your racetrack to be falling apart. Cracks in the asphalt to the point you’d be afraid to walk on it, let alone race on it. Rough terrain that tears up tires, puts a premium on handling and creates an obstacle course of an oval. That’s why the racing at TMS was getting good. The age of the asphalt led to a challenge drivers relished, forcing them to find the right groove while nurturing their car over a long green-flag run.
But how is that a good philosophy? Is it better for the property value of your house to let your driveway rot rather than repave it? Of course not. You fix it up, put fresh asphalt on it and that should make things better — not worse.
New pavement wasn’t always the death knell for a NASCAR racetrack. The infamous 1979 Daytona 500 that put this sport on the map was competitive, in part, due to fresh pavement at Daytona International Speedway that provided more grip. An unprecedented number of cars, over a dozen, were on the lead lap after halfway. Fresh pavement produced impressive competition — and that’s before the infamous finish involving the Cale Yarborough-Donnie Allison crash on the final lap.
At some point, though, improvements in technology, tires and equipment meant fresh asphalt made things almost too competitive. It reduced any obstacles preventing the drivers from running wide open, producing speeds so close together it’s flat out hard to pass someone. Evening out the racetrack also eliminates the advantage of certain grooves. Drivers naturally gravitate to the fastest way around, and at first, fresh pavement typically offers the same answer.
For years, NASCAR has known about this problem; they just don’t have a better solution. It’s similar to the restrictor plates that were “temporary” fixes at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway for 30-plus years. That’s mind-boggling to me. There has to be a way we can make this better. Can Goodyear bring a more aggressive tire compound that wears? Should the sport bring a more aggressive, higher-speed handling package to these tracks? It’ll keep drivers from running wide open all around the track, bringing handling and driver skill back into play.
You’d think this type of research and development is worth doing. After all, you can’t just hope and pray your track doesn’t need a repave forever. But that’s what we’re doing at some of these places.
“OK … it’s rotting. But maybe we can make it another year or two before it’s unbearable.”
It’s a weird strategy and the sport could do better. When it redoes the schedule in the coming years, can it work on fixing this problem?
2. A Championship Changing of the Guard?
During the past three years, just six drivers have reached NASCAR’s Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. Those drivers all have a full decade of experience on the Cup level and are, on average, about 36 years old. Not a single one is under age 30. It’s a group NASCAR nation has watched for years; their ability to attract new fans is about maxed out at this point. People have an opinion, good, bad or ugly.
No, in order to grow, NASCAR is going to need a changing of the guard, as I’ve argued in several past columns. But while it’s taken far longer than expected, we’re on the verge of that happening in 2020.
24-year-old Chase Elliott just won the All-Star Race. 26-year-old Ryan Blaney won Talladega last month, led the most laps at Texas and sits second in the standings. And 27-year-old Alex Bowman, who has showcased strength on intermediates, is a dark horse contender if he recaptures some early-season magic. Even 28-year-old Matt DiBenedetto would be a nice Cinderella story if he makes the NASCAR playoffs (and he’s currently 12th in points).
Sure, the half-dozen drivers listed above are all still heavy favorites to advance (even a winless Kyle Busch). But it certainly doesn’t look as easy this year. One week, Denny Hamlin wins. The next? He’s wrecking while leading or spinning out, not once but twice. Even Kevin Harvick, the most consistent of the frontrunners this year, has shown an occasional crack in the armor that could make him vulnerable.
There’s no guarantee Elliott, Blaney et al can get over the hump. But they’re closer to making the leap than ever. Can this wacky 2020 be the year it happens?
3. Wacky Wins for Austin Dillon
I’m not going to rain on Dillon’s parade that much, nor Richard Childress Racing, who posted their first 1-2 finish since 2011 at TMS. Kudos to Richard Childress himself, who made a difficult choice to fire Daniel Hemric after one season and retain two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick. Reddick, second on Sunday, has had an outstanding rookie year and pairs perfectly with his 30-year-old grandson. Dillon, in particular, has shown improvement on intermediates; Sunday was his sixth straight top-15 performance on 1.5-mile ovals this season.
That said, Dillon has the weirdest victory track record of any Cup driver with three or more wins. Consider his resume:
- 2017 Coca-Cola 600: Dillon wins on fuel mileage when others are forced to pit. He only leads the final two laps of the race and accumulates just five stage points. (Second-place finisher Busch scored 16 points more).
- 2018 Daytona 500: Dillon earns the victory with a controversial last-lap pass-turned-wreck of Aric Almirola on the backstretch. It’s the only lap he winds up leading in the race.
- 2020 O’Reilly Auto Parts 500: Dillon doesn’t lead until pit strategy puts him up front on old tires late in the race. Great restarts, clean air and the presence of rookie teammate Reddick allow him to cruise to victory.
Dillon led 22 laps in Sunday’s victory, just the second time in 147 career starts he’s led more than 20 laps in a Cup race. (Daytona, July 2019 was the other). It was also just his second top-five finish of the season; he hasn’t had more than four of those in any of his seven years racing the No. 3 car.
It’s a head-scratching career, that’s for sure. But here’s the bottom line: Dillon has two crown jewel trophies plenty of Hall of Famers would give their right arm for. Last I checked, Kyle Busch hasn’t won the Daytona 500. Logano hasn’t won a Coca-Cola 600. And Truex hasn’t won Texas.
4. The Other Big Playoff Mover … With Silly Season Implications
Much was made of Dillon’s playoff win, Reddick’s playoff positioning and Jimmie Johnson‘s struggles at Texas after hitting the wall. Lost in the shuffle was a quiet, get-it-done sixth-place finish from Erik Jones. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver now sits just 24 points outside the top 16 with eight races left to secure a postseason bid.
It’s a position Jones is all-too-familiar with after his up-and-down 2019 season. This year has been no different, with crashes in two of the past five races putting this young driver squarely on the bubble. Once again, just like last season, negotiations for a JGR-contract extension loom in the background as Jones fights for his life on a top-tier team.
Here’s the difference from 2019: rival Christopher Bell is running Cup. And he’s not just logging laps as a rookie. The No. 95 Leavine Family Racing driver has as many top-10 finishes as Jones (two) over the last five Cup events. It’s possible with two wild card Daytona races next month, Bell could score an unexpected victory; Cole Custer just proved it could happen with a spectacular rookie restart-turned-win at Kentucky Speedway.
That makes Jones’ bid for the playoffs a bit more important than last year. Is it more difficult for JGR to sign on the dotted line with a postseason miss? And would it be tough for another top team, like Hendrick Motorsports, to take a risk on him? Absolutely. But a Jones playoff push could satisfy Gibbs, in particular, just enough to keep his four-car alignment intact for one more year. There’s no rush to put Bell in the seat, especially if in the Toyota camp his connection to LFR literally keeps the No. 95 from shutting down. Furniture Row Racing’s presence proved it’s always good to at least have one satellite organization for additional feedback.
The question is whether Jones can get it done. There are opportunities for a victory ahead at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Daytona and Dover International Speedway in particular next month. The equipment will be in place; it’s up to the driver to execute.
5. What’s Up With Iowa?
Finally this week, there’s a report from The Racing Insiders that Iowa Speedway will be sold or closed at the end of 2020. The 7/8-mile oval, owned by NASCAR, has never earned a Cup Series date despite appearing on the NXS schedule since 2009.
Many thought the track’s layout and penchant for side-by-side competition would make it a shoo-in for a revised NASCAR schedule in 2021. Instead, it looks to be heading in the opposite direction despite the sport repeatedly citing a need for more short tracks.
If true, it would be a shame considering NASCAR has full control of this decision. If there’s one thing the race at TMS proved, the sport could benefit from a little more diversity on the schedule. The unique length of the speedway, combined with its location (upper Midwest, no other races in the state), would make it a quality destination on paper. And the COVID-19 pandemic rules are not as strict at Iowa compared to other states. In fact, NASCAR could have easily moved a Cup date there if they so chose.
There’s clearly more than meets the eye to the situation there. But considering the quality of racing this track provides, Iowa deserves better than how it’s been treated.