NASCAR Starting To Get Back To A Normal Fashion, But How Many Of “New Normal” Things Will Stick?

For the first time since March, NASCAR had a normal week of preparation. The Cup Series teams went from a race last Sunday at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway to this Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN) at the Atlanta Motor Speedway without a weeknight race between.

That was big for everyone within the industry to get a couple of much needed days off. See, while they had 70 days between races from March 8 to May 17 due to the COVID-19 shutdown, the revised schedule produced four Cup races in a span of 11 days. They had scheduled shows of Sunday’s and Wednesday’s. Factor in the rain aspect and it was a lot to handle.

That’s why while the drivers and teams were happy to be working and racing again, they welcomed this week on the schedule.

“Yeah, it will be nice to have a week to actually kind of reset,” Clint Bowyer said last Sunday following a runner-up finish at Bristol. “Racing two nights a week is no problem. I mean, we’ve all done that before. Usually it was Saturday and Sunday. When it’s a mix of Sunday to Wednesday, it doesn’t give you much time in between to kind of sit back and have a conversation with the guys.

“They’re digging as hard as they can, trying to play catch-up, getting cars to the racetrack. We’re doing the same thing, just trying to get to racetracks. Rules are changing left and right as we go, as everybody learns with this pandemic and everything of different states and different guidelines.”

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Action during last Sunday’s Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway

Kyle Busch’s Crew Chief Adam Stevens agreed saying his team is exhausted for all the hours putting in.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

More: NASCAR’s Schedule To Continue Longer Now Without Fans

They’re right. There’s not much you can do in between races due to having to go at it again a few days later. Plus, you throw in a vastly shorter race in the midweek race and a new way of setting the starting lineup and you can’t take much over from the previous race to the next even though it’s on the same track.

While it’s great for the fans and could be great for NASCAR, it’s something that we don’t need every week. NASCAR’s President Steve Phelps said as much recently too.

“Do I think we’ll have some one-day shows where you come in and race on a Wednesday night? Yeah, I think we’ll probably see some of that moving forward,” Phelps said last week.

But, he also reiterated that he didn’t expect to see it every week either. He doesn’t want to over saturate the schedule with weeknight races, and instead of making it special, make it just feel normal. The first month or so has been an experiment with things to see if anything sticks moving forward. The weeknight races appear to be moving in that direction and with a scheduling overhaul starting in 2021, expect to see a few on it.

For the rest of the season, we only have three weeknight races likely left. Wednesday night in Martinsville, a weeknight in July for the All-Star race and a Thursday night at the end of July in Kansas. Everything else will take place on the traditional weekends.

So, what else could stick?

I think the no practice and no qualifying format could be the norm at certain tracks too. While Phelps says that they will look to get back to traditional weekend schedules again by the end of the year, he did also say that limiting on track activity during the weekend’s would be in the cards as well.

“There are some things that we’ll look at both this year and the offseason,” said Phelps. “Typically, we practice three times. Do we need to practice three times? I don’t know. That is something we, as an industry, will determine.

“Having cars on racetracks, is that something that’s important with respect to a practice? Or isn’t it? Or frankly, do you have a better show when you don’t practice? And those are some of the things we need to look at.”

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The drivers all agree, lets just line up and race now

I think most drivers agree, we don’t need as much practice anymore. It doesn’t serve the same purpose as it used too and was actually turning into a money pit. You’re wasting dollars, thousands of it, with each run made because you’re wasting sets of tires and gallons of gas that could be saved for the race. Plus, the lack of on track activity leading up to the race helps the show itself.

Think about it. Guys have to run what they bring. If you get three practice sessions, it allows the top teams to get their cars fully dialed in and other than minor adjustments, they’re good to go for the race. In turn, it limits passing because it’s hard to pass a good car up front when you’re going the same speed or even slower. With the new way, it’s a guessing game where the cars are all over the place. Add to the fact that the field is set by either a blind draw or an invert and you get plenty of passing opportunities.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said in a media teleconference last Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Brad Keselowski agrees and says that NASCAR has hit a home run with this format.

“NASCAR in my opinion has hit gold with this format, Brad Keselowski said last Thursday night following the Alsco 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race and the time window benefits both east and west coast. No qualifying, inversion is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there.”

Keselowski noted, that the worst race of the revamped schedule so far was the Coca-Cola 600. It was the longest race but the only race where they actually qualified for. The race at Charlotte a few days later, was half the distance, started on an invert and was vastly better with more passing. Point made.

It doesn’t matter who you walk to, the drivers are all in favor of less practice. So, I think you’ll see less practice, no qualifying and weeknight shows all stick.

Another thing you’ll likely see stick is shorter races. I mean, we don’t need long races anymore. You can accomplish more in a shorter window. Yes, TV would obviously like the races to be 3+ hours in length to fill the gap and get their money’s worth, but the activity picks up more in shorter distances.

Darlington and Charlotte proved that. People’s attention spans aren’t like they used to be. No one really wants to commit half of a day inside to watch a race. Shorten the window, makes the racing more intense, which means people are happy with what they’re watching and they tune in again in the future. Higher ratings and better races should trump lower ratings and bad racing.

While I get fans may scoff at the notion of taking days away from race weekends and now making races shorter, but it’s the right way to go.

“I mean, I think it’s right around the length of an NBA or football game, somewhere in that range,” Hamlin said who’s earned a top two finish in both weeknight races run. “NBA is about two and a half hours, football is three plus.  I mean, I think it’s good.

“But certainly you can look back on my quotes from two years ago; heck with tradition; you’ve got to advance with the times.  I think that keeping people’s attention span for three hours is a good thing.  It’s a very good thing.  These cars are different now than what they used to be.  It used to be a battle of machine, you’re going to wear out your tires and your brakes and whatnot.  They just don’t wear out anymore, so essentially it just becomes a long race after that.

“I certainly like the change, and on a weeknight time slot that we have, it’s got to be tightened up anyway, so I think this was a good taste of it, and they’ll gather the data and figure out what’s best for them in the future.  Maybe it’s keeping them long, I’m not sure.  Let the people that know a lot more about it speak on it.”

To me, every race can keep the “500” in it but become 500 kilometers instead of 500 miles. No need to run anything more than that moving forward other than the Daytona 500 and Southern 500. Leave them alone, the rest move to “500” kilometers.

The next thing potentially changing? Going to tracks once a year. Other than the tracks in the southeast where the most passionate NASCAR fan base is, why do we need to go anywhere else multiple times? NASCAR can be like the old Tony Hulman motto where he notes the Indy 500 was like the circus in that it comes to town once a year and either come now or wait 365 days before they’re back.

It works. It’s proven so.

We don’t need to see the same redundant race at Dover, Pocono, Kansas, Texas, Michigan, Vegas, Phoenix, etc twice in the same year. The attendance will go up at those tracks because of the one visit.

Pocono moved to a doubleheader weekend for 2020. Instead of two race weekend’s they have one this year. While it will now take place behind closed doors, track CEO Nick Igdalsky said in a press conference on Thursday that the ticket sales for the final weekend of the month were astounding and that the growth was more than they’ve seen in a decade in-a-half. The ticket sales were up over 30-percent and they were on pace for selling out the infield well in advance and they even added almost 1,000 additional spots before this year too.

It shows it works.

You can take away race weekend’s that way and add a few new tracks to the mix as a result. Then, leave the rest of the available weekend’s open and shorten the season by that and adding a couple of weeknight events.

While I get some fans may get mad at the notion that we’re taking races away, shortening the ones that we have and even shortening the race weekend itself, they’ll have to adapt. The old way of thinking by having 36 points paying races spread across the country, having three days of practice, qualifying and racing for 400-600 miles of racing, well it’s not working. You have to adapt with the times and the times are saying these changes are needed.

The final factor that we could see more of is IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekends. I mean, think about it, it’s the best bang for you buck for both series, TV networks and the fans. IndyCar and NASCAR share a TV provider in NBC Sports. IndyCar, doesn’t have the luxurious contract in place so they don’t share TV money with the tracks. But, if the tracks host NASCAR and IndyCar on the same weekend, they make more money because the sanctioning fee that they’re paying IndyCar is basically reimbursed and then some from the NASCAR share of their TV money. Plus, all the infrastructure is in place already as well. Indy, Texas and Richmond each share their tracks with NASCAR and IndyCar. Iowa, Gateway, Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake all share their tracks with NASCAR’s lower series and IndyCar and have been wanting Cup dates. Homestead, Kansas, Chicago, Kentucky and the ROVAL would be good NASCAR tracks for IndyCar to come back to.

See the good predicament here?

So, while the pandemic has been a pain in the ass and forced us to change everything that we know, I think it actually had some good come out of it in terms of altering some outdated things for the sport and bringing in fresh ideas that can help bridge the sport to the future.

 

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