Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Should NASCAR Championship Be Decided in Phoenix Every Year?

Phoenix Raceway is one of the most interesting racetracks on the NASCAR circuit.

It’s not an oval, it’s not a road course. It’s not a superspeedway, and I don’t know if you can call it a speedway. Its unique shape provides an obstacle like no other experienced on the Cup Series schedule.

For the last three seasons all three NASCAR divisions have had their championships decided at Phoenix. Yet, some yearn for the days of when the championship ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway, arguably a more competitive track than Phoenix.

Others feel Phoenix is just fine. Some may even have a unique idea for the championship race. Amy Henderson, Vito Pugliese and Trenton Worsham all give their opinion in this week’s two … no, three-headed monster.

Phoenix Was on Fire Last Weekend – Why Leave?

2022 was a pivotal year for NASCAR, particularly in the Cup Series. The season launched in Los Angeles at the LA Coliseum, debuting a new car in a new market, and the result was a resounding success. New fans, new eyes, and targeting the key age demographic needed to help sustain the sport in the future, everything came together perfectly.

As the season progressed, new story lines emerged almost weekly: the rise of Ross Chastain and Trackhouse Racing Team, road courses continuing to be the new action tracks, the saga of Kyle Busch, intermediate tracks being fun again. Until the incident between Kyle Larson and Bubba Wallace at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there was hardly anything negative to speak of in the Cup Series.

Enter Phoenix.

The championship race for the Cup Series had its moments for sure: Chastain making contact with Chase Elliott on a restart, sending him spinning. Christopher Bell freaking out thinking his engine was blowing up. Bell’s crewman fastening his thumb to the wheel on a pitstop, there really was something for everyone.

Joey Logano, however, set sail and won all three stages convincingly and uncontested. In the closing laps, Logano was being chased down by his teammate, while Chastain tried desperately to close the distance, with Logano winning by less than half a second over his teammate, Ryan Blaney.

While I thought the race was fine, a quick perusal in the social media realms had a definite pitchforks and torches tone to it.

“Can we just go back to Homestead?” was a common refrain. My initial reaction was, “did you NOT watch the Xfinity and Truck races this weekend?” Moreover, what was so great about Homestead just a couple of weeks ago? Larson did his Larson run an inch off the wall thing perfectly and won by over 1.2 seconds over Chastain.

Larson, also not in the playoffs.

The Truck Series at Homestead saw playoff driver Ty Majeski win by almost five seconds over runner up Zane Smith. Gragson versus Gibbs was great at Homestead, but Phoenix for the Xfinity Series was simply one of the best races of the season.

As far as the Truck Series goes, here’s the final few laps to determine the championship; this seems a bit better than second place being a full corner behind.

This isn’t to tarnish Homestead, it certainly provided its own share of great racing throughout the years, but I don’t see how it’s superior to Phoenix. It will almost certainly never be affected by weather, it’s not a short track, but it’s wide and slow enough in the corners that you can survive some contact, and if the body is wrinkled, the car is suddenly non-competitive. Everyone can see the entire track from virtually any seat, and it’s a first-class facility for hosting a marquee event, one of the most modern and accessible on the tour.

Do I think it’s the be-all/end-all?

Not necessarily. The idea was floated a few years ago of starting and ending at Daytona International Speedway, which always sounded good to me. Yeah, I know, superspeedway race, wildcard, too much out of your control … oh, you mean like Chastain riding the wall wide-open and pulling almost 6Gs in turn 3 at Martinsville Speedway on the last lap?

My ultimate wish would be for us to return to a season long cumulative points battle with some adjustments for wins and poles, but we’re kind of resigned to this championship format for my lifetime at least. Knowing that, keeping things at Phoenix for a few more years makes the most sense. The constant change that permeated the series from 2010-2015 started to look like a desperation move to see what sticks, with most ideas sliding down the window leaving a greasy, gooey streak. Leaving things be for a bit helps to create some tradition and expectation, let alone building some consistent marketing and promotional programs to continue to grow and mature the event.

Ultimately the answer is really addressing the car. If it’s a Truck Series or Xfinity race you want, the Cup cars have to be made more compatible with tracks that have relatively low banking. Both races at Phoenix and Martinsville left a bit to be desired. Whether the answer lies in gearing, not shifting, or the tires, it needs to be addressed before next year, or we’re only going to get more of the same of what we saw this year at other flat and short tracks next season.

Come to think of it, based off the result this summer, if we really want to inject some tradition and nostalgia back into this, maybe we should just go back to Atlanta Motor Speedway if Phoenix falls out of favor. – Vito Pugliese

LA Coliseum as The Title Race

Phoenix Raceway has been the site of the NASCAR championship races for three seasons now with Logano winning the Cup Series championship for the second time. However, the final race should be something with excitement and fanfare wrapped around it but it has seemed that the races leading into the race do more of that.

Chastain rode the wall to secure a spot in the Championship 4 at Martinsville, the final cut-off race, and went viral across many forms of social media. The race in Phoenix was not delivering on the same level of hype and excitement as that one move. New fans tuning in to see a major title race were probably let down, though Logano did earn extra time to prep for winning the first race of the Round of 8.

So how do we fix this?

The solution is changing the race and the entire Cup Series season. The first step would be to shorten the races. NASCAR has made attempts and efforts to reach a younger demographic, but with technology causing shorter attention spans, sitting down for 30-plus weekends a year for 3-plus hours is asking a ton of someone. Keep the marquee events such as the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, etc to make those even more special.

The second step is creating demand and excitement around the races. Reducing the schedule would be a good chance to rotate some tracks in and out each year to create a demand for those markets. Visiting some tracks just once a year would take away another date making that seat and ticket that much more valuable. Homestead-Miami is a driver and fan favorite and in 2022, the former site of the season finale was near the end of the playoffs, meaning fans had to wait since early 2021 just to see another race there.

This leads to the ultimate point of making the LA Coliseum the championship race. Shortening the season would allow the season finale to wrap up before college football season to get the field ready after the race. USC could have a week 1 neutral site game and a week 2 away game just for insurance after the race is over.

The four-car title format would work perfectly because super bowls, college football titles, and the Olympics have been major events to happen inside those storied walls. Why not the biggest motorsport in America join it?

We saw in the 2022 Busch Clash four car heat races to set the field; this definitely showed this could work, proposing a 25-25-50 lap three-stage race between the championship 4 while the other drivers raced in a similar format to the Clash, with a main event before the championship race.

No solution is perfect for anyone, but racing in such a close-quarters venue surrounded by fans on a short track, which has demanded more of, would make the championship event consistent, give it a true home, and make it a true spectacle for everyone to come to watch. – Trenton Worsham

The Title Race Should Move Every Year

There’s a certain amount of good reason behind hosting the NASCAR title races at Phoenix Raceway. It’s probably the best chance of a race weekend unimpeded by rain and it’s warm enough in November that fans won’t shy away for fear of winter cold. A flat one-mile oval(ish), Phoenix can offer more than a single groove.

But the title races there have been, um, a little … OK, they’re boring.

Still, Phoenix is a decent enough option to host the race sometimes. Along with almost every other track in NASCAR. And that’s why the venue for the season finale should change every year.

While the current championship format in the three national series makes it exceptionally difficult for drivers to repeat as series champions, changing venues would keep any one team from having an advantage in the title race.

Should every track that hosts the Cup Series host the finale? Of course not. Take away Daytona, Talladega Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway first, because the sport’s champion shouldn’t be determined by a multi-car crash that’s all but an inevitability at those tracks. Yes, crashes happen everywhere, even Phoenix (ask Chase Elliott), but more so at the superspeedways, and now speedway wannabe Atlanta.

The early November date and the weather probably take Michigan International Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway (the near-80 temperatures we had in the Granite State on championship weekend aren’t normal. At all.), Pocono Raceway, Dover Motor Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International at a minimum. Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway might be on the edge of tolerable as well.

That still leaves a variety of tracks as viable choices to host the championship race:

Short tracks: Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, possibly Bristol, and a reconfigured Auto Club Speedway. After all, Martinsville hosts the penultimate race currently and it’s not going to get that much colder in a week most years.

Flat tracks: Phoenix and World Wide Technology Raceway.

Intermediate tracks: Charlotte Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway (provided it doesn’t reconfigure into another Atlanta), Homestead, Nashville Superspeedway.

Road courses: Charlotte, Circuit of the Americas, Daytona (not currently on the schedule but is certainly doable) and Sonoma Raceway.

Teams would know a year or so ahead of time where the next title race would be, so it’s not as if anything is being sprung on them at the 11th hour.

Schedule adjustments would definitely have to be made year-to-year. For example, if Darlington was to host the finale, it would be in place of its spring event, because the Southern 500 is a legacy event that should not be tampered with. The same goes for the Coca-Cola 600, so Charlotte might have to give up its road course race to host on the oval. The Daytona road course would require the loss of a date at another NASCAR-owned track.

That’s part of the allure, though. NASCAR’s schedule does tend to stagnate if there’s no good reason for a shakeup.

All in all, changing the venue of the finale yearly is, from a competition standpoint, a no-brainer. It gives fans in different areas of the country the opportunity to see the title decided in their backyard, or at least within reasonable travel distance. At least occasionally, it gives teams the chance to finish out the year close enough to home that their friends and families can attend and the drivers in the title chase can sleep in their own beds.

It also opens the door for the title race to unfold in a drastically different way each year. Even putting Ross Chastain’s Martinsville “Hail Melon” aside, the entire strategy to win at a short track is entirely different from at a large intermediate or a road course. Different drivers have different strengths as well; one who’s great at Darlington might have a different race ahead of him at Richmond. The more variables, the better, because a one-race championship needs to be hard to be taken seriously by fans.

When it comes to crowning the champions at NASCAR’s highest levels, everyone, including fans, teams and drivers, should be treated to something different each year. That makes for more excitement from fans who are able to attend and keeps any one team or driver from having the advantage of racing for a title on a track where they excel — or the disadvantage of racing for it at a venue where they struggle — year after year.

The best thing NASCAR had in 2022 was the unpredictability of how the season unfolded. Why not give that same gift to the championship? – Amy Henderson

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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CHIEF

Start and finish at Daytona !

wildcats2016

dear heavens no! personally they should drop the whole “playoff” idea. It was a dumb idea of Brian France. How many iterations of the playoffs have there been? I’ve lost count and all interest in who wins the last race. This is not stick and ball.

Lisa C Cannon

No I think they should have it at different tracks every year. That gives people the middle to lower class a chance to attend.

Kurt Smith

I think all of your ideas have merit…except for finishing the season at Daytona…changing the venue every season is a sound idea as is the Coliseum.

However as I’ve said elsewhere, the only reason this race was boring was because Joey Logano and the 22 team spanked the field…I’m not even a Logano fan, but I was duly impressed how with all of the marbles on the line that team just flat smoked the other participants.

But when you think about it, how good were the other contenders? Elliott was probably worthy, but remember that Chastain had to banzai his way into the final four (I’m not lying, I loved that), and Bell is a young driver whose team didn’t look to be ready for the moment. (Although I can certainly understand given what had just happened to the Gibbs family, so I’ll cut them definite slack on that.)

I have been saying all year long that I have no clue who’s good this year, and ultimately a driver and team that were good but hardly head and shoulders over their competitors got hot…for one race. Was the 22 team the best team this season? Maybe, but one race doesn’t prove that.

In the World Series this year, we saw a clearly overmatched Philadelphia team put up a valiant fight in a couple of games and get smoked in the other four by literally unhittable pitchers. I live in the Philly area and people here are dejected beyond belief thinking they had a chance. (I’m an old guy, they didn’t listen to me in 1993 either.)

It goes to my point that all of the major sports (including NASCAR) are following the lead of hockey and basketball. It used to be that only good teams made the playoffs. Now the chance to be the greatest all season is eligible to everyone that doesn’t really suck. And in the end the big show ends up a bore. If the Dodgers played the Astros as they had absolutely proven they’d earned, it could have been a World Series for the ages.

One thing about the season long points system was that at the end, the champion really was the best driver and the best team and had proved it. And if NASCAR wanted more close battles at the end, they absolutely could have found a way to remake the points system (stage racing, as much as purists hate it, could have helped that) without creating a contrived points reset to produce “game seven moments”.

It’s always about entertainment, not competition, to the people that run NASCAR. And we’ve reached a point where everyone in the motorsports media (no offense, I still think the Frontstretch is the best out there) is calling the finale boring instead of marveling at how damned good Joey Logano and his team were last Sunday.

wildcats2016

Well said, Kurt.

Racer919

Great ideas. Love the idea of shorter races and let’s dump the stages when we do, that’s just artificial drama anyway. Reliability of the cars due to better technology and more $$ and the rarity of accidents (except on restricted superspeedways) makes long races unnecessary. While we’re at it how about shortening the season to no more than 26-28 weekends including special events. To balance the shorter races you could run double race weekends, either Saturday and Sunday or Sunday afternoon and evening. Rotating championship weekend is also a positive step.

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