Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five changes NASCAR should have made to the schedule for 2015…
NASCAR released the 2015 Sprint Cup schedule on Tuesday, and as expected, there were a few changes. NASCAR made absolutely the right call by moving Darlington to the Labor Day weekend date that once made it the longest-running tradition in the sport. Bristol’s later spring date is also a wise move, as the April weather in the mountains is a bit more predictable. With NASCAR entering a new television contract in 2015, this schedule would have been a great opportunity for a complete overhaul of the docket. That didn’t happen, but here are a few of the biggest opportunities the sanctioning body missed.
1. A road course in the last ten races Since NASCAR insists on having just ten races determine the sport’s champion, it stands to reason that those ten races should include at least one road course in that span. Most of the sport’s best can handle the left and right turns, so it would not ruin anyone’s title hopes any more than any other track can, and it would be a test of a different skill set. Road courses are also an equalizer of sorts, where the smaller teams have an equal shot, and that plays into the hands of the Chase underdogs. Watkins Glen in early October, perhaps after New Hampshire, is lovely. There is really no good reason not to include a road course in the championship run. If the title is about the best driver, then the champion should be able to hold his own on any track, including on that features right turns.
2. Atlanta as the season finale In some ways it makes sense to end the season on an intermediate track in that there is less unpredictability than a short track, for example. Atlanta Motor Speedway used to host the finale, and the race was often a pretty good show. AMS is one of the better 1.5-mile tracks in terms of the racing quality, and the season finale needs an upgrade in that department. While early March was a more traditional date for AMS, the track had two races then, and the weather for the spring date can be difficult to work with. AMS has almost always put on a better race than Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it’s closer to home for the road-weary teams. Overall, it’s a better choice for the final race, except for one detail: it’s owned by Bruton Smith and not NASCAR’s sister company International Speedway Corporation. It’s no mystery why NASCAR wants to keep the race at Homestead, because the France family makes more money that way. Which is too bad, because the finale could use an upgrade.
3. Fewer night races The cars look great under the lights, but is night racing all it’s cracked up to be? I don’t think so – nighttime track conditions are more conducive to aero dependence, while during the day, the surface heats up and becomes slick and unpredictable. That’s especially true for some tracks that are hyper-sensitive to temperature changes. Night racing looks pretty, and there’s the illusion of more aggressive racing, but that’s not really the case at most tracks. Racing during the day, with conditions at their least favorable, makes for a better show. Sure, it can be a bit uncomfortable for the fans, but they’ve sat in the stands in summer heat for decades. It’s also harder on drivers, but isn’t that part of the game? Nighttime just isn’t the right time for a lot of tracks to host Sprint Cup races.
4. The final off-week just a bit later The week off between Bristol and Darlington is a welcome change for just about everyone in the sport, but why not have it after the 26th race, before the Chase begins? Better yet, if NASCAR swapped that late break with the Richmond race, the Chase field could be decided by the Lady in Black, in the Southern 500, the race that epitomizes what NASCAR is supposed to be. That would be a great way to end the regular season, and give the Chase teams an equal chance to prepare. The current gap does not do that – while the winners are locked into the Chase, the same can’t be said for others. That means that while the Chase teams are hard at work preparing their cars for the final ten races, the rest are preparing for two more chances to get in. That leaves anyone who does race in or get in on points after the break a week’s disadvantage.
5. Talladega in the summer heat Here’s a final nod to the sport’s history…why not return one of Talladega’s races (preferably the one that’s currently in late October) to the gritty heat of high summer? Racing at ‘Dega in the sweltering heat was, like the original Southern 500, a test of both man and machine. It would also remove the crapshoot factor from the Chase, or at the very least, to the beginning of it. As it stands, it leaves the title too much to luck. The most skilled plate racer can be caught in the wrong place for a big wreck. Should the best driver all year be eliminated from title contention while running in the top 5 because someone else makes a mistake? Should a driver who runs at the back all day for points move on in the Chase while one who actually races to win falls victim to the Big One? Sure, it can happen anywhere, but we all know it’s practically guaranteed to happen at Talladega. Moving the race makes the race harder to win, and keeps the title race from turning into a roll of the dice late in the game.