With Nashville solidly in the rearview mirror there are now just nine Cup races left in the “regular season” prior to NASCAR’s “all-singing, all-dancing, all–live, all-nude, only a quarter” 10-race playoffs that will determine this year’s Cup champion. Fans have embraced the new method of crowning a titlist with all the warmth and passion of a cactus, but that’s what is on the menu again to 2021, no getting around it.
It doesn’t seem that long ago we were all enduring a nearly six-hour rain delay at Daytona only to watch Michael McDowell set the world on its ear with a stunning upset win in the 500 that all but clinched his entry into this year’s playoffs. Tell me what other sport has a rule or even a possibility that a win in the first event of the season earns a team entry to postseason play.
Over the last four months, life is slowly returning to what they claim is normal. I’m not sure that having passengers brawl on airliners or retail employees getting beaten or shot due to disputes over retail establishments’ mask protocols is the sort of “normal” I want to embrace, or that I recall pre-pandemic. Yes, a lot of restrictions are being eased or even eliminated, but there’s still a new rulebook in some situations and we all need to learn to just get along again. Sooner beats later in that regard.
In the rural part of Chester County I call home, most stores now have signs posted that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks (though I usually still don mine to avoid potential conflict). After all, nobody is requesting proof of vaccination, and it’s a given that here’s always going to be a subset of people who feel sure other people are getting away with something that they’re not allowed to do.
And as it turns out, the NASCAR circuit is headed to my neck of the woods for their next two races. For a second consecutive year, Pocono will host two consecutive points paying races on Saturday and Sunday next weekend — weather, as always, permitting. June in these parts has been quite lovely and relatively dry, but I’ve always heard that the best way to have unexpected storms inundate an area is to schedule a NASCAR race there. The extended forecasts for next weekend note a possibility of thunderstorms both Saturday and Sunday.
This year, the experiment will be to see if NASCAR fans will actually pay to see a Cup race on two consecutive days, if they’ll choose one race over the other, or if they’ll blow off the weekend entirely. Last year, the first Saturday/Sunday Pocono doubleheader was held in front or empty grandstands as COVID rules in place at the time forbade any tickets being sold. This year, as far as I understand it, Pennsylvania rules will allow anyone to attend the races with no need to wear a mask. Personally I’d still stuff mine in my back pocket just in case. Easier to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. God forbid you have a medical emergency this weekend at the races, as you still need to wear a mask at medical facilities in Pennsylvania, or at least you did as of last Saturday.
I’ll be curious to see what kind of crowd the doubleheader weekend draws. A lot of folks used to think that having two Cup dates at the same track barely a month apart hurt ticket sales. Race tickets are expensive, and fans, particularly fans planning to bring along the family, needed a few paychecks to spread out the cost. Of course, that was back in an era when if you could exit the track after a race and make it back to the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania turnpike within 24 hours, you were doing OK.
I’m also curious to see who wins this year’s Pocono races. Last year Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick split the wins. That was about par for the course with Hamlin winning seven races and Harvick winning nine in 2020. To date, of course, both drivers are winless in 2021.
After the Pocono races, that circuit will head off to Elkhart Lake for some road course racing. The last time the Cup series hit this track was in August 1956. A fellow by the name of Tim Flock won that race at the wheel of a Mercury with both its headlights and windshield wipers on that rainy race day. No, COTA was not the first race in NASCAR’s top division to be run in the rain.
Flock had recently quit Carl Keikhaefer’s powerhouse team that was dominating the circuit back then. Imagine if Chase Elliott announced tomorrow that effective immediately, he was resigning from HMS. That’s the sort of shockwaves the announcement caused back in 1956. For Flock, beating the dominant cars of his former teammates was proof he wasn’t insane after all. Elkhart Lake will take over the Fourth of July date from Daytona this year.
By coincidence, in addition to Elkhart Lake, there are two more road course races left in the “regular season: Watkins Glen and the road course at Indy, which will take the place of this year’s Brickyard 400. Somehow or another, NASCAR used to get by with just two road course dates annually for decades. Riverside did host two races a year from 1971 to 1987. (Many of those years, Riverside hosted the season opening Cup race, not Daytona.)
NASCAR says that all the road course dates on this year’s schedule are there by fan demand. Oddly enough, the request I hear most often from fans is for more short track races. None of them were added to this year’s slate of races.
Including the two Pocono events, fully five of the remaining regular season races will be run on tracks where they used the so called Low Horsepower/High Downforce package on Cup cars. I hear from a lot of fans that really dislike that setup. They feel the package eliminates driver skill as a primary factor in who runs up front. They insist, and the numbers seem to bear them out, that with that package the only good racing is in the first three or four laps after a restart. After the field gets strung out, the racing tends to be mediocre at best.
Atlanta is the next event after Pocono to run the low HP, high DF package. Loudon the following week is a high horse, low downforce track, I believe because it’s just over a mile around. Watkins Glen and the Indy road course follow Loudon on the schedule.
This year, NASCAR Cup racing will take two consecutive weekends off, July 25 and August 1, to allow the NBC networks to provide coverage of the Summer Olympics. Two weeks off during the summertime, right before my birthday? Yeah, I’ll happily sign off on that one even if any Olympic coverage I watch will be strictly by mistake.
The week after the Indy road course event, the series travels to Michigan for another low horse, high force race. Last year, Michigan featured two races in a single weekend like Pocono, but this year the track has only one date on the schedule … which I am sure the fine folks at Pocono took note of.
The final race of this regular season will take place at Daytona on August 28 rather than the traditional Fourth of July week(end) date. Naturally, the race will no longer be called the Firecracker 400, a name several soda companies have been trying to rid the sport of for many years. While the date has been moved, it’s still summer in Florida and it’s still a night race. That means the traditional late day pop up thunderstorms in hot and humid Florida remain a distinct possibility, as do those pesky wildfires that time of year.
As far as having the champion-eligible drivers determined on a plate track (OK sorry, tapered spacer track), I’m against it. A driver’s fate at Daytona or Talladega is too much a matter of chance, not skill. It’s like holding the Olympic running event time trials across a minefield.
SRX Commercial XS: Last week in a review of the inaugural SRX broadcast, I noted that they kept commercial interruptions to green flag racing segments to a lot lower rate than a typical Cup race broadcast.
This week, the new racing series made some changes to their format. The two heat races were cut from 15 minutes each to 12. The main event was slashed from 100 laps to 50. As part of that change, CBS apparently decided to see how many more commercials they could insert into the broadcast, even during green flag racing, without alienating fans of the nascent racing series. Well … ummm, not that many. I think there’s a Grateful Dead cover band playing in town (such as it is) next Saturday night. That currently seems like a better entertainment option.