Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: A Chase Worth Catching – 10 Tracks That Should Decide the NASCAR Championship

While it came as no surprise this week when it was confirmed that Kentucky Speedway would get a NASCAR Sprint Cup date in 2011 from Atlanta, as well as Kansas earning a second event at the expense of Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, there was a bit of confusion surrounding the announcement Chicagoland Speedway would be the site for the kickoff of the 2011 Chase for the Championship.

Chicago? You mean the same Chicagoland Speedway that packed ’em in to the tune of a rather optimistically stated 67,500 strong last month on a warm, summer Saturday night? To put that into perspective, Bristol drew 85,000 fans in March – for a Nationwide race.

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Not sure if you noticed or not, but the population density of the Windy City and the surrounding area of Joliet is a bit more dense than Thunder Valley. Then again, the density of those involved in some of the decision-making processes surrounding our sport would be hard to call into question of late. Take Kevin Harvick as an example: he was on hand for the announcement where he praised the unique layout of the track – as well as the support that the series receives from Chicagoland Speedway and the Chicago area.

Ironically, it was just 48 hours earlier that Harvick suggested there should be standards in place for every track, for everything from safety to attendance.

So while Chicago assumes the point in the 2011 Chase for the Championship, it relieves Auto Club Speedway of its Chase date; picking between these two venues is like picking the leper with the most fingers. How can giving either one a spot in the playoffs solve our problems?

It’s a good thing I’ve come up with a solution. Little things like logic and common sense haven’t slowed down our sport over the course of the last five years, so what follows below is my vision for the ideal Chase for the Championship. Even Jeff Gordon likes the idea of rotating out tracks each year, and so do I; but here’s my best crack at a perfect group to choose from.

Note that consideration was given to scheduling, the significance of each track to the sport and to the sport’s history, and the style of racing each generates. My end result creates a well-rounded portfolio of locales that would help rekindle fan interest, determining as much of a true champion that can be crowned after points are reset two-thirds of the way through the season.

Darlington Raceway

Didn’t see this one coming, did you? Since losing its rightful Labor Day weekend date to Auto Club Speedway, of all places, in 2005, The Track Too Tough To Tame has been granted but one date in May – and is forced to call it the Southern 500. Well, since tradition went out the window along with the baby and the Mountain Dew a long time ago, why not meld the NASCAR’s New World Order with the oldest of the Old School?

Darlington actually once was a Chase race in the inaugural – and perhaps most competitive iteration to date – in 2004. True to form, it produced one of the best races of the Chase for 500 miles, starting in the afternoon and finishing under the lights. Some may sneer and want The Lady in Black to have nothing to do with the little bastard that is the Chase – but I bet you can’t make a compelling argument that it’s any worse than Chicago.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Many used to rip on Loudon a lot – myself included – but over the course of the last few years, it has been the site of throwback side-by-side competition, generating some of the best last-lap and late-race battles in recent memory. Whether it’s Jimmie Johnson vs. Kurt Busch a couple of months back or Denny Hamlin and Jeff battling down to a .068-second margin in 2007, New Hampshire is one of the few short tracks left on the circuit, even though it’s technically not one.

NHMS gives NASCAR some presence in the Boston area and can reliably be counted on to seat 101,000 for the weekend. Besides, if it gets rained out, it has already proven that fans will show up on Thanksgiving weekend to watch a stock car race.

Kansas Speedway

Having secured a second date in 2011, Kansas is poised to become one of the most significant tracks on the NASCAR schedule. Centrally located in the United States like SAC headquarters, it is one of the few destinations where fans in the heartland have a chance to go see a race – and pack the stands they do.

Kansas has produced a few memorable finishes during its brief tenure (Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd in 2004, along with Carl Edwards‘s NASCAR Thunder 2003 pass attempt on Johnson in ’08 come to mind), though it is more likely to spawn a tornado than a poignant Chase moment. Then again, maybe a second date and another 400 miles of competition to wear in the racing surface is what it really needs to come into its own. Besides, they have a big casino now to cater to the vices of red-state race fans.

Watkins Glen International

Many fans and those within the sport have been clamoring for a road course in the final 10 races, so here you go. If last weekend’s race at the Glen is not proof enough why road courses belong in NASCAR, let alone the Chase, then either you really don’t like racing or really do just like watching cars go around and around in a circle.

Road-course competition has been a part of NASCAR long before Chrysler conjured up the idea of a 426 cubic inch hemispherical combustion chambered cylinder head and is not some new phenomenon as some would have you believe. All of those championships that Petty, Earnhardt, Waltrip, Pearson, Yarborough and even Gordon won included points tallied up at road courses.

The October backdrop alone would be worth tuning in for; could you imagine the fiery fall foliage of upstate New York, providing as much color as the cars sweeping past the bright blue Armco barriers that line the 2.45-mile road course? The only thing they may need to do is fit the cars with deer whistles.

Charlotte Motor Speedway

The Queen City has long since been the halfway point of the Chase and as the epicenter of auto racing in America, it shall retain its spot on my schedule. Many 1.5-mile tracks are coined cookie cutters, but this one is unique, as it’s the one that served as the mold for virtually every track built in the late 1990s and early part of the millennium. That being said, it was also here that the term “levigation” was introduced into our consciousness and a bit of the track’s character was lost in the midst of the grinding.

But Charlotte still serves as the home of NASCAR, with all but a handful of teams based here, as well as the Hall of Fame, and should remain a pivotal event in the championship Chase. One request, however: lose the yellow walls.

Richmond International Raceway

What the Chase needs is variety, and even more so, short tracks. Richmond at 0.75 miles in length has become what some consider the new prototypical modern racetrack, helping serve as the inspiration for the layout of Iowa Speedway. And running it the fourth week of October would still allow for a race either on Saturday night or on Sunday afternoon should weather rear its ugly head.

So long as there is not a Virginia Tech or Redskins home game, it would be the dominant event that weekend and a welcome addition to the 10-race playoff format. Richmond always welcomes a whole host of America’s heroes to its events and would make a great addition to NASCAR’s playoff drive.

Martinsville Speedway

Short Track: Check. Original track from inaugural 1949 season: Check. Grandfather Clock trophy: Check. Shrubs, trains and pink hot dogs: Check, check and check.

If there is a compelling argument for omitting the paperclip from the Chase, I’m game to listen. I’ll laugh in your face and tell you to shut up, but I’ll listen because I’m a gentleman. A half-mile short track with paved straights and concrete launching pads at the exit of the corners is the perfect throwback to a simpler time. Frayed tempers, boiling brake fluid and crinkled fenders – some drivers might be “pretty boys” according to Kurt Busch, but you still have to get it done on one of stock car racing’s signature racetracks to claim a championship.

Texas Motor Speedway

Another 1.5-mile track in The Chase, but one that reliably brings over 150,000 people in attendance each race. While that alone should not determine what tracks get a Chase date, it should factor into the equation. Seeing as the Dallas Cowboys get umpteen Monday Night Football and Sunday night games, it should still be the main draw on a fall Sunday afternoon and if it is run in conjunction with what is apparently still America’s Team, all the better.

Even if for some reason this race should happen to get rained out, no matter; this spring, nearly 100,000 people showed up on a Monday to watch Hamlin and his bum knee outlast Johnson to the finish.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Sure, Las Vegas does not have a second Cup date – yet – but few will argue that it’s only a matter of time until it is granted that long-anticipated visit. Either way, it would make sense to have the track as part of the Chase at some point, would it not? Vegas is not exactly the most competitive oval, but it is the entertainment capital of the United States; and, perhaps more importantly to professional organized sports, home of legalized gambling.

The oddsmakers and bet takers handicap racing the same as the NFL, NBA and MLB, which makes for an attractive destination spot for a race to help pack the stands and drive the economy. While guys handing out bio cards on prostitutes may not exactly be as family friendly as Coca-Cola’s efforts in uptown Charlotte on race weekend, the track can support a second date and would fit well as the penultimate race in the Chase for the Championship.

Daytona International Speedway

The season starts in Daytona and thus it should end there. Some may argue that having a restrictor-plate race in the Chase is a mistake and too much of a wildcard. Talladega is for sure, but Daytona is more of a handling track and if run during the daylight hours, the field will likely be separated and strung out. Besides, look at how many got wadded up at Texas this spring.

If the Daytona 500 must finish in the dark under the lights, then the second and final race of the season should be run during the light of day and conclude at a decent hour; the Indianapolis 500 has done pretty well for 94 years running under the sun.

Yes, it might be up against the NFL during a November afternoon, but if NASCAR really wants to compete with the one sport it insists on emulating, then it needs to do so at its signature track and on its grandest stage. You can’t do that at Homestead, Las Vegas or God forbid, Chicagoland, meaning the final act has to be The World Center of Racing – Daytona International Speedway.

About the author

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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