Major changes were expected when NASCAR unveiled its 2020 Cup Series schedule earlier this week. The shakeups — the sanctioning body’s first in many years — were substantial, but still not as transformative as some fans would have liked.
Of course, you just can’t please everyone.
Because of its current contracts, NASCAR can’t actually change which tracks it goes to — or doesn’t — until the 2021 season. Those changes can come after new negotiations with track operators Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. It’s feasible then that NASCAR looks to scrub certain tracks off the schedule entirely while adding new ones to fill those voids.
Anyone expecting those huge sweeping changes would have been disappointed by Tuesday’s release, but that’s missing the point. NASCAR should be applauded for taking such bold steps to improve its product. Toying with rules packages and aerodynamics is one way to improve the racing; changing the stakes at certain venues is another.
That isn’t to say every change was perfect. Some of the new moves, ones that bucked tradition especially, will go over poorly with fans. Again, you can’t please everyone.
Instead of trying to convince you the new schedule is all good or all bad — it’s neither — let’s break down a bit of both.
Five things I liked
1. Martinsville (finally) gets a night race: Ever since Martinsville installed permanent lights in 2017, race fans have been begging for one of NASCAR’s oldest venues to host a night race. The new schedule not only accomplishes that, but does so on Mother’s Day weekend. Last week’s race aside, Martinsville is typically one of the more exciting events on the schedule. Adding a nighttime atmosphere should only make things more dramatic.
2. Making Daytona the regular-season finale: This one some fans protested, as Daytona has been NASCAR’s Fourth of July site since 1959. Undoing 50 years of tradition can be tough to swallow, which Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing officer, admitted in a teleconference Tuesday. He said NASCAR would only undo that sort of history for something grander... and this qualifies. The Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, the last regular-season race the past few seasons, has lacked drama and it’s seen no surprise playoff entrants. Daytona ticks both those boxes.
3. A two-week break for the Olympics: O’Donnell mentioned NBC, one of NASCAR’s television partners who also broadcasts the Summer Olympics, asked the sanctioning body for this change to avoid conflicting interests. It makes sense — NASCAR has seen ratings declines during previous Olympics overlaps, so why try to compete? Plus, in the span of a 36-race season, giving fans and drivers two weeks away from the slog isn’t the worst idea.
4. Attempting a double-header at Pocono: This is ambitious by NASCAR: trying to run two Cup races, at the same track, and on back-to-back days. A lot of the logistics here are being sorted out, but NASCAR deserves credit for trying something unconventional. O’Donnell mentioned midweek races presented too much of a challenge in trying to condense the Cup schedule, so this is a solid alternative. If it doesn’t work, no harm no foul. If it does though, NASCAR might have found a solution to shortening its grinding schedule.
5. Rotating the championship track: No other major sport has the same championship venue every year, and while Homestead-Miami Speedway has been a terrific site for NASCAR’s finale, it’s time to spread the wealth. Any number of major markets would love a crack at hosting a major championship event, and many are deserving. Phoenix’s renovated track will surely do well hosting, and the warm weather there is a big plus. However...
Five things I didn’t like
1. Phoenix doesn’t achieve championship parity: NASCAR said its reasoning for shifting the championship location was to avoid giving any one driver a competition advantage. I buy that logic. I don’t buy the facts that back it up. The last nine races at Homestead have yielded nine different winners, including five straight different victors in NASCAR’s new winner-take-all championship format. Phoenix on the other hand? Kevin Harvick has won seven of the last 14 races there, and Kyle Busch has won the last two. That whole parity argument is a good reason to keep rotating the championship venue... so long as it actually rotates on a year-to-year basis. Keeping it at a track like Phoenix accomplishes the opposite purpose.
2. An overly chaotic second playoff round: The playoffs aren’t supposed to be easy, but they’re not supposed to be random either, right? The new second round — Las Vegas, Talladega and Charlotte’s Roval — could easily end up being that. If a Big One at ‘Dega wrecks multiple contenders, and the same thing happens a week later at the Roval, you’re going to end up with some really ticked off drivers and some really underwhelming final contenders. NASCAR certainly doesn’t need either of those right now.
3. Making Darlington the first race of the playoffs: This one’s simple — Darlington’s Southern 500 is a classic race, and one that still draws substantial turnout. This could have been more aptly placed during the regular season and given proper attention, rather than taking some of that specialty away by lumping it in the playoffs.
4. West Coast swing right after the Daytona 500: Going straight from the most prestigious race of the year all the way across the country feels ... Counterproductive? Momentum-stalling? Like a burden for teams and fans? How about D) All of the above?
5. Relegating Homestead to a random weekend in March: Poor Homestead. It didn’t deserve this. Not only did NASCAR strip South Florida of the championship race, but it then sent it to ... a random weekend in March? Homestead usually delivers a good race, but it’s going to be strange to see something so valued for so long become just another normal race weekend. It probably would have made more sense to shift Homestead to another playoff spot at least, but instead, it ends up as probably the biggest loser of any track on the new schedule.