This time last year I anxiously awaited the 2021 NASCAR season and looked forward to the new racetracks that were set to run, including the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track, Circuit of the Americas and Nashville Superspeedway. I also was unsure of how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect things, as Auto Club Speedway was already moved to the Daytona International Speedway road course.
But the pandemic didn’t impact the calendar as much as it did in 2020, as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park was the only other racetrack that was realigned.
Instead, rain and storms affected two of the five new NASCAR Cup Series tracks, the Bristol dirt race and COTA. Torrential downpours and severe flooding forced both the NASCAR Camping World Truck and Cup series events at Bristol to run on Monday, March 29. Fortunately, the sun came out that day and Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano stood victorious at the end of the Truck and Cup races, respectively.
However, those races weren’t run without incidents. Several spins and wrecks occurred in each event that took out some strong contenders. For instance, in the Truck race Matt Crafton nudged John Hunter Nemechek, who spun around and near the outside wall. A few seconds later Derek Kraus’ truck came into the picture and spun into Nemechek, knocking both out of competition.
Then in Cup we saw several big crashes, one of which eliminated the dirt favorites. Christopher Bell’s No. 20 car got turned in the middle of the track and Kyle Larson had nowhere to go. Bell retired from the race while Larson kept on, eventually finishing five laps down.
About 37% of the Truck event was run under caution, with 10 yellow flags out for incidents. Cup, meanwhile, had seven caution periods for spins or accidents, with just 15% run under yellow. NASCAR worked on the track as much as it could, but dust picked up so much after the competition caution on lap 151 that a melee soon occurred. Ten cars were collected in this wreck, including Ryan Blaney’s No. 12. Blaney rebounded to eighth by the end of the day, though.
Aside from all the big crashes, the race wasn’t all that bad, considering it was the first Cup dirt race since 1970. As long as NASCAR makes adjustments that will help with visibility (and the rain stays away), it should be an enjoyable race. Two-hundred-and-fifty laps felt a bit long, though, for the speed of the cars.
A couple months later, the Cup, Xfinity and Truck series made the trek to Austin, Texas for the inaugural events at COTA. Todd Gilliland, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott took home the Truck, NXS and Cup trophies, respectively.
Unfortunately, rain was the hot topic of the weekend, especially in Sunday’s Cup race. Two major accidents happened within the first 10 laps of stage two due to poor visibility. The first one was a bit unclear from the broadcast, but we knew that Blaney, Bell, Kevin Harvick and Bubba Wallace all had major damage. Harvick had slowed a bit and next thing you knew, his car got lifted in the back. Wallace ran into him, but neither driver could really see much in front of them due to the spray, rain and wet racetrack.
After this crash, something should have been done so something like that wouldn’t happen again.
But the race soon restarted, and another incident happened, this time much more dangerous. Truex couldn’t see a slowed Michael McDowell in his path and the No. 19 ran smack into the back of the No. 34, opening Truex’s hood. Then Cole Custer came through at a high speed and slammed Truex’s car, lifting it up off the ground. Custer then hit the wall and caught fire.
NASCAR’s Scott Miller addressed the issue and told reporters after the race, “I would kind of own the fact that maybe we did let it go a little bit too long there before we did something.” NASCAR also tested flaps at Richmond Raceway during its wet weather test and required two blinking brake lights on Xfinity and Cup cars in case it rained. Actions speak louder than words, and it certainly is the case here (though no other race had quite this bad of conditions).
The third new track was Nashville, now owned by Speedway Motorsports. A full crowd was on hand to witness the Cup Series’ first go at the 1.333-mile course. 2021 Cup champion Larson won his third-consecutive points race in dominating fashion, leading all but 36 laps. Though no one could keep up with the No. 5, the restarts were exciting and there were battles throughout the field. Some cars ran out of fuel in the closing laps, including then-points leader Denny Hamlin. After the race, Elliott’s car had five loose lug nuts and was disqualified.
The remaining two new courses in Cup were Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Technically, Road America wasn’t new in Cup, as the series ran in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., in 1956. Elliott earned his second victory after starting 34th.
The 4.048-mile track has unique turns (like the Kink) and beautiful scenery. It’s definitely challenging for drivers, though only a few retired early.
However, the placement on the calendar seemed weird. It could be that NASCAR wanted to try to create a new tradition and add more excitement for the regular season finale at Daytona at the end of August. And yes, America is in the racetrack’s name, so it fits the theme of Independence Day weekend. I’ll wait and see how the Next Gen cars perform at Road America before I make any conclusions.
The IMS road course event was a different story, but mainly due to the curb in turns 5 and 6 coming apart as cars ran over it. After the race restarted on lap 77, Truex spun around and into the right-side barrier. Then the following lap, William Byron, Logano and several other cars hit the broken curb and slid off track, many into the wall. Another big accident followed that one, involving McDowell, Austin Dillon and quite a few more.
Eventually NASCAR took out that part of the curb and the race went into overtime. Chase Briscoe was on the front row with Hamlin and ended up going into the grass, missing a complete turn. He didn’t serve his penalty for cutting the corner and eventually bumped Hamlin off course before NASCAR parked him, giving way to AJ Allmendinger. As a result, Kaulig Racing won its first Cup race in exciting fashion.
The Truck Series visited another location for the first time besides COTA and Bristol dirt — Knoxville Raceway, its second dirt track of the season. While the heat races were fun to watch for the most part, the main event was marred by quite a few crashes and pileups. About 45% of the race was run under caution; one of these periods was from a 17-truck accident on lap 155. Austin Hill won his first of two victories of the season in overtime that night.
Cup, Xfinity and Trucks will all return to these tracks next year (with Cup debuting the Next Gen car), so NASCAR can take what it’s learned from each event and put on better and safer shows in 2022.
More courses are set to be introduced this upcoming season, too: Trucks will take on Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July and returns to Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park at the end of the month. Xfinity goes to Portland International Speedway in June. Lastly, Cup has World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in June. And don’t forget the Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum!
This is an exciting time in NASCAR’s history, and it will be interesting to see 2023’s schedule. Auto Club Speedway is supposed to change to a half-mile course that year, and Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway has a principle agreement in place to overhaul the facility. A lot more needs to happen for the latter racetrack to hold a Cup race, but it’s still possible. Besides, the Superstar Racing Experience ran its series finale there last summer, and Cup raced there from 1958-1984.
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