One of the things that changes as a soul grows older (as opposed to growing up) is an increasing dislike for changes. Things are as they are and they’re just fine that way. But some changes are inevitable and even necessary.
Unless you went into full Luddite mode last week, you’ve heard by now that NASCAR announced some major changes to the 2020 Cup schedule. Most of you reading this are (at least) as well-informed as I am about what’s going on. Because of my Tuesday AM time slot (same Matt time, same Matt channel), I’m arriving late at the party, so I won’t repeat too much of what my fellow writers here on Frontstretch.com have already written.
First off, in a decided break from most weeks, I’ll applaud NASCAR for finally admitting some changes were necessary for the sport to return to prominence and the level of popularity it enjoyed over a decade ago.
The sanctioning body was under huge constraint as they made their “tweaks” to the schedule. Because of existing five-year deals with the current tracks, wholesale changes to the schedule weren’t an option. (OK, we’ll overlook for the moment that NASCAR and the ISC (which owns almost half the tracks on the schedule and are run by the same family, the Frances by and large of Daytona Beach. It’s hard to imagine them suing themselves for altering race dates they already control, but that’s a fight for another evening.))
If you were hoping to see more short tracks, road courses, or even additional ovals where NASCAR currently doesn’t host races added to the changed schedule, that’s why it couldn’t happen. This year.
Those five-year contracts with the tracks expire next year, which puts everything into play. If the changes to the 2020 schedule surprised you, get ready to have your head explode when the 2021 schedule is released sometime next year.
One notable change in 2020 will be the location of the season finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway (an ISC track) to ISM Raceway, A.K.A. Phoenix (another ISC track.) The agreement with Ford Motor Company to sponsor NASCAR’s Championship Weekend (during which the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series champions are crowned) ends after this year anyway, so there was one less pugilist in the ring.
Since the Ford Championship Weekend became a thing in 2002, three Ford drivers (Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano) have been crowned Cup champions. During the same time period, Jimmie Johnson, wheeling a Chevrolet, claimed seven titles during the Ford Championship Weekend.
Yeah, that’s going to leave a bruise. Things were even worse in the Truck Series. No Ford driver has ever been crowned at Ford’s big end of the season party. Pickup trucks remain the highly competitive segment in the new vehicle category (one Ford leads by a goodly amount incidentally), and makes up a large percentage of the carmakers’ profits. Oddly enough, Ford recently announced they’re going to stop making all sedans other than the Mustang banking on those cross-over things (a vehicular platypus that combines the most awkward traits of SUVs and mini-vans) as their future. Cross-overs and electric/hybrid vehicles…..neither of which compete in NASCAR racing.
Those of you who have been around awhile might recall that the track at Homestead was built in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the area. It was intended to provide an economic boost to help make up for the loss of the nearby Air Force base which never reopened after the storm. The taxpayers got stuck with the bill for the racetrack, at which point NASCAR decided that Homestead wasn’t worthy of a Cup race.
It wasn’t worthy that is until ISC bought the joint for a dime on the dollar and not only gave the track a Cup date, but gave it the season finale. That left a lot of taxpayers and local politicians all but foaming at the mouth but such was the dictatorial power of NASCAR in that era.
Naturally, you’ve heard that ISC just dumped a ton of money into upgrading the track at Phoenix in an effort to make it more fan friendly. Then, the friendly fans by and large didn’t show up at the track for last month’s race weekend. Naturally having the season finale there next year ought to boost ticket sales a good bit. As for Homestead, it was always sort of the red-headed stepchild of the ISC family anyway. Dirty deeds done dirt cheap, so to speak.
One advantage that Homestead does enjoy is the early season weather in southern Florida is far more conducive to racing than much of the country that is still subject to snowstorms and the occasional blizzard in March. The track at Atlanta (the red-haired stepchild of the sport’s other big track owning corporation Speedway Motor Sports) also ought to enjoy improved weather probabilities with a mid-March date.
Some writers expressed relief that the Daytona 500 will still kick-off the points paying portion of the season in mid-February. That’s traditional, right? Actually not so much. From 1970 through 1982, the Cup season used to start in Riverside, California, usually in January. Back in 1957, the season kicked off on October 11, 1956 at Lancaster. Oddly enough, the 1956 season ended a week later on October 18, 1956 at Wilson. The same day as the 1957 season began, NASCAR ran the penultimate race of 1956 at Hickory.
The Clash will hold serve as the first Cup event of the season. My opinion? Sharif don’t like it. But as long as there’s still a few dollars to be milked out of the by and large pointless event, NASCAR is going to have an iron-fisted grip on those teats.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the announcement last Tuesday had to do with the race dates for Pocono Raceway next year. Honestly, I thought I was having a flashback when I heard that both Pocono’s Cup dates will be held on the same weekend, one on Saturday and one on Sunday.
Say what? Common opinion had always been the two Pocono race dates (one in June and one in July) were too close together, forcing fans to decide which they wanted to see for economic and logistical reasons. Well, you can’t put two race dates much closer than 24 hours, can you? It’s going to be a virtual cornucopia of racing action for fans that do attend the 48 Hours of Pocono, with those two Cup races (length TBD), an NXS race, a Truck Series event and an ARCA race.
Initial reports (misstated of course) were that one ticket would get fans into both Cup races. Not bloody likely. Pocono is not a charity. They’re already gambling big on their revenue stream for next year. They will (presumably) get the same TV revenue from the networks for hosting two races but ticket revenue is an unknown.
What strikes me is Pocono is one of the few remaining independent tracks (as in not owned by the ISC or SMI). With far more race dates to experiment with, it would seem that either ISC or SMI could have dipped their toes into the doubleheader weekend concept rather than forcing Pocono to dive in headfirst.
The other concern about having all that racing in one weekend is the weather. In the Poconos, weather during the summer is unpredictable and occasionally violent. Back in 2016, both Cup races at the track had to be postponed until Monday (and one of those was ended early by a fog-bank that seemed to roll in out of nowhere.)
That same year, the track’s Indy Car race was also postponed due to weather. As long as stock car racing is held outdoors, there’s always going to be weather risks. As the late Ben Blake told me: “The only thing worse than rain at a race track is rain at a race track with lights.”
Well, at least Pocono doesn’t have lights.
Speaking of weather, while NASCAR folks swear that they took the weather into account when deciding date shifts, and statistically there will be less chance for rain or cold weather during races, it’s notable that the rescheduled second date at Daytona moves that race into a part of the year the locals have a charming name for, “Hurricane Season.”
If you were following the sport in 1998, you might recall that year’s Firecracker 400 had to be postponed because of wildfires raging out of control near the track. Right up until that Thursday, NASCAR was swearing the race would go on as planned. My memories here are vivid as I drove down after that assurance and had to turn around as I reached the Georgia/Florida state line.
But in the end, the weather is going to be what it is. As a motorcyclist forced to take shelter under highway overpasses by drenching downpours, nobody had predicted the “science” or weather forecasting is a crapshoot even within 24 hours, much less 16 months. For the record, the 1998 Firecracker 400 was run in October of that year, perhaps the longest delay between a scheduled race date and the postponed running of the event.
To give an idea of what NASCAR was up against somewhat overlooked in the flurry of announcements were some clues that SMI (the track owning entity controlled by Bruton Smith and his family) aren’t completely aboard with these new scheduling initiatives. Marcus Smith stated flat out that that company will not entertain hosting any weeknight races, now or in the future.
It’s notable that whatever changes were made to SMI tracks seemed to be highly advantageous to them. Recall how the Smith family had to fight to get their race dates, purchasing tracks to move one or both races or shifting a race from one of their properties to another. At one point they even funded the infamous “Fernando Ferko” lawsuit to get a second date at Texas. Smith never felt he was being dealt fairly with by the France family which had a clear conflict of interest in the matter owning NASCAR and controlling ISC. The battle lines for next year are already being drawn.
Another less discussed change to the 2020 schedule is the two week long Olympic Break change made to the schedule apparently at NBC’s insistence. The gap occurs between the July New Hampshire race and the resumption of racing at Michigan, August 9.
“Matt, you stinking hypocrite,” I can already hear some of you hollering. How many years have you been demanding (rather unpleasantly at times) that the Cup schedule feature more breaks? Now they give you two weeks off and you’re hollering that it’s a bad idea?
Yes, I want to see more breaks in the insanely long schedule. I also want to see the season end earlier. Common sense dictates that when the NFL (the 500 pound gorilla in sports’ programming) has their season begin in earnest, we the unwashed masses of fast, loud car racing ought to have packed up our rocks and rolled. Eliminating the Olympics break could have ended next season two weeks earlier.
What I really object to is one of the two networks that cover the sport being carte-blanche to have their way with the schedule. Yes, I’m aware that NBC (and FOX) pay an obscene amount of money for NASCAR broadcasting rights. NBC is also paying out an obscene amount of money to cover next year’s Olympics. They decided how much to bid for those rights. I know for a fact I didn’t have a gun to their heads when they wrote those checks. What we have here is a tacit admission is that the TV packages are the cash keeping the good ship NASCAR afloat in the current era. You call Uber, you pay for the ride. You don’t get to drive the car.
NBC execs said something about not wanting to break up the momentum of their Olympic coverage by having to devote two Sunday afternoons (or Saturday nights) to something as inconsequential as stock car racing. Never mind that the Olympics will break up whatever momentum the NASCAR season has built up at that point.
Ask any preacher. You give folks an excuse to take two weeks off of services and you’ll likely never see some of them again. Oh, and there’s some talk they want to use NBC commentator Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a guest during their Olympic coverage. Here’s a hint: Stock car fans tend to be southern in a much greater proportion than Olympic viewers and perhaps three-fifths of us are able to understand every third word he says when he gets excited and starts hollering. “SLIDE JOB!”
Naturally, I was greatly relieved to read that the Southern 500 will retain its traditional Labor Day weekend date at Darlington, the track where it belongs. Well done there to all parties concerned. The Brickyard 400 being given the Daytona Firecracker 400s Fourth of July date is neither here nor there to me. As I see it two lousy races at two lousy race tracks get swapped. The one drawback to the move is that Daytona’s second date will now be the last race of the season before the playoffs begin.
I’m envisioning a great deal of carnage during that race. (And let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say there’s someone left in NASCAR’s marketing arm that come up with a new name for the event to replace the “Firecracker 400.”) It’s probably too long to use but how about, “In a desperate attempt to renew at least a modicum of interest as our playoffs begin we’ll use a plate race so that when all the wreckage is over perhaps a driver you never heard of whose team is funded by Green Stamps sneaks into the playoffs 400.”
For similar reasons I don’t like seeing the fall Talladega race being the center race in the Round of 12. (Naturally I don’t like the Playoffs either.) As I see it, that’s like having championship motocross racers run one round where they earn points by how many school buses they can jump over Evel Kneivel style during one event. Add that to the Charlotte ROVAL race being in that second round as well (and the ROVAL event is to be kind, still a work in progress) and you seem to have a vital playoffs round that negates what a driver has accomplished most of the season in favor of blind luck.
Onward and upwards, Campers. You keep the change.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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