Did You Notice?… Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of a handful of tracks to gain back a second NASCAR date in the modern era after losing it? AMS will run its first NASCAR Cup Series race of 2021 this weekend (March 21) before the sport makes a return trip on July 11.
There’s a lot of good reasons for AMS to get its groove back. Its worn-out surface, tough on tires, still makes it a driver’s track, even with the sport’s 550-horsepower, high-downforce handling package. Its proximity to one of the largest, fastest-growing cities in the Southeast makes it a must-have for the sport. And CEO Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. is eyeing a $1 billion expansion that includes a casino and entertainment complex built adjacent to the racetrack.
The COVID-19 pandemic also creates a necessity to keep more races close to NASCAR’s Charlotte, N.C. hub, to cut down on travel risks and overall costs. Darlington Raceway had three Cup races last season for the first time in its history while Charlotte Motor Speedway had a trio of its own: two on the 1.5-mile oval and one on the ROVAL last October. (CMS was cut back to its traditional one oval, one ROVAL race schedule in 2021).
It’s great to see NASCAR reconnecting with some of its best tracks and its southeastern roots. The question is, how much is too much? We’re up to 19 of the sport’s 36 Cup races contested in just a handful of southeastern states: Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
2021 Southeast Racing Schedule
Alabama: Talladega Superspeedway (2)
Florida: Daytona International Speedway (2), Daytona road course, Homestead-Miami Speedway
Georgia: Atlanta Motor Speedway (2)
North Carolina: Charlotte Motor Speedway (2)
South Carolina: Darlington Raceway (2)
Tennessee: Bristol Motor Speedway (2), Nashville Superspeedway
Virginia: Martinsville Speedway (2), Richmond Raceway (2)
That puts NASCAR closer to its 1992 alignment, in which a whopping 20 of 29 races (69%) were contested in the Southeast alone. In fact, the only other states NASCAR visited that year were Arizona, California, Delaware, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. What’s missing? The entire Rocky Mountain region, Pacific Northwest and giant Midwestern population centers like Texas.
Bill France, Jr., NASCAR CEO at the time, realized to grow, the sport needed to spread its wings. Starting in 1993, France kickstarted a robust national expansion across the country that added dates near Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Dallas/Fort Worth at the expense of southeastern tracks like Rockingham Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway. By 2005, only 15 of 36 races (41%) were contested in the southeast, the lowest total in the modern era.
Now, we’re creeping back up to 53%. Is that too much? The trick is to find that balance as the sport figures out long-term schedule realignment. As NASCAR emerges from COVID-19, it’s tricky to keep so many races that close together when fans can only spend so much money to get to the racetrack. You need to be able to spread these dates across the country while ensuring quality competition.
That’s where the track rotation idea fits in. As much as SMI wants Atlanta to stay entrenched with two races, one of those dates should be in play. Ditto with Richmond, especially if another short track is being added to the schedule in 2022 with Auto Club Speedway out in California. The racing just hasn’t been good at Richmond for several years now.
Instead, those dates could be spread out to other regions across the country. Other ovals, like Iowa Speedway, can rotate back into the schedule on a yearly basis. Portland International Raceway could finally get NASCAR out to the Pacific Northwest while adding another challenging road course. And tracks like New Hampshire Motor Speedway can get the Atlanta treatment once every couple of years: a second date that helps pump up their income and rewards markets producing solid attendance.
Richmond and Atlanta aren’t alone; other places, like Pocono Raceway and Kansas Speedway, could easily throw their second dates into the rotation, too. There’s only a handful of tracks these days that are “crown jewels” putting up turnstile numbers and competition worthy of multiple races.
There’s another important development NASCAR track owners have learned the past few years: keeping these tracks viable on weekends there isn’t racing. Dover International Speedway hosts the FireFly Music Festival annually. SMI has already done a smaller-scale casino project over at Kansas Speedway with great success. Cutting race dates in half won’t close these places down.
So enjoy the first of two races at Atlanta this year. I just hope NASCAR doesn’t make it a habit as it looks toward long-term growth. They’re enduring through the pandemic and positioned well to spread those wings again in 2022 and beyond, doing it the right way and targeting markets ripe for expansion.
Their problem the last time in building tracks like Chicagoland Speedway wasn’t the region; it was the design of the track itself. Expanding the right way can keep the sport relevant while increasing diversity and track types.
Did You Notice? … The penalty for failing pre-race inspection still doesn’t seem to hinder NASCAR teams that much? Kyle Larson failed twice, and he was battling for the lead by the second stage. In fact, all three Hendrick Motorsports cars sent to the rear (add Chase Elliott and William Byron) finished in the top 10 by the end of the first stage.
Just like with pit road speeding, failing pre-race inspection is a subjective penalty. Fans don’t see it, they’re just told it happened and have to trust NASCAR officiating. From that standpoint, increasing the penalty could cause harm to that fragile trust between the sport and its fan base.
But you also can’t have the sport’s multi-car giants feeling like they can flaunt the rules. Attaching some type of points penalty may be needed to strengthen the boundaries and push crew chiefs back from the gray area. Remember how many times Joe Gibbs Racing failed inspection last year, including multiple playoff races in a row for Kyle Busch? You don’t want that pattern to start cropping up again in 2021.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Did Michael Jordan start a trend of the NBA investing in NASCAR? News broke Tuesday (March 16) LeBron James is a new partner for Roush Fenway Racing’s parent company, Fenway Sports Group. His interests extend far beyond stock car racing but the question is whether his presence will cause FSG to more deeply invest. Jack Roush, turning 79 years old this year, has no clear heir apparent and came close to selling the team outright before. Definitely a story worth watching.
- Hasn’t Justin Allgaier started to feel like the Elliott Sadler of the NASCAR Xfinity Series? Great driver where things never worked out in Cup, found a home in the sport’s second-tier division but the luck (and the championships) never seem to go his way?
- As I mentioned on CBSSports.com, Team Penske has to be kicking themselves on the Cup level. Joey Logano has led 198 laps, more than anyone else this season, and lost three of five races in the closing laps. Brad Keselowski looked to be two turns away from knocking the Daytona 500 off his bucket list and sits o-for-5 instead. And Ryan Blaney continues to be overshadowed by other young, 20-something talent reaching victory lane.
- Speaking of the Xfinity Series, teenager Ty Gibbs has more points in two races than Noah Gragson has in all five. What a rough start for Gragson.
- Here’s another crazy stat for you: Corey LaJoie and Jamie McMurray each have more top-10 finishes this season than 2020 NASCAR playoff drivers Aric Almirola and Matt DiBenedetto.
- With Jordan Anderson and Ronnie Bassett Jr. still shut out of NASCAR Xfinity Series races every week, here’s a crazy thought: why not find a backmarker team in the Cup Series to give them a backup car? There have been 38 entries the past few weeks, and, while no one’s a fan of start-and-parking, who can blame these guys to try and keep up their race teams afloat while entry list forms shut them out of making NXS races for another few weeks? Hard to keep teams from qualifying where there’s no actual on-track speeds to draw from.