FOX has been touting the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season to date as the “best ever.” Sorry, I’d give that honor to 1992 and wouldn’t even provide 2021 to date a spot on my top-10 list of modern-era Cup seasons. As far as the year itself, it’s shaping up to be another Annus Horriblus in a two- or three-year string of them. (Can you imagine what NASCAR 2022 will be like?)
I read this week that TV ratings for the last 30% of the 2021 Cup season are expected to be down — and down significantly. For those of you as loathe to do math as I am, that covers about the last 11 races of the year. Which, in turn, covers the majority of what is supposed to be NASCAR’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-live, all-beautiful playoffs originally designed to return stock car racing to the top tier in sports broadcast ratings.
But we all know what happens in the ratings wars come late summer and early autumn. The NFL returns first with some preseason games, and then both the regular season itself. In a flash, the ratings go through the roof for football and into the toilet for NASCAR. Oh, there was some discussion of boycotting the NFL among conservative pundits in love with the sound of hearing themselves speak and even a sitting president at the time over players kneeling during the national anthem. However, football remains the 600-lb. gorilla in the TV sports ratings game. It sits wherever the hell it wants to at the head table. I see little chance of that changing within my lifetime.
So how can NASCAR at least staunch the bleeding a bit in the ratings? First off (and this note will be on the test), it needs to shorten the season rather dramatically. NASCAR kicks off its schedule in the dead of winter usually on or around President’s Day weekend in mid-February. The Cup schedule drags on until the week before Thanksgiving, spring, summer and fall all having fallen by the wayside by then.
That’s ludicrous, especially given the amount of events NASCAR will host in that timeframe with very few weekends off (traditionally just Easter, Mother’s Day and one in the summer that I believe has been usurped by the Olympics this year, if in fact the Olympics are held and broadcast [which I’m not betting the ranch on either]). The schedule needs to be trimmed substantially. Ideally, I’d like to see the final race of the Cup schedule, where presumably the champion would be crowned, moved up to Labor Day weekend. And I’d like to see that final race moved to Darlington Raceway, the sport’s spiritual birthplace.
With three non-negotiable exceptions, any track that currently hosts two Cup races (as of the 2021 Cup season) would be cut back to just one race next year. The three exceptions: Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway, naturally.
NASCAR said it heard the fans loud and clear: They wanted more short track racing. NASCAR tried doing it by sleight of hand, suddenly deciding that after all these years Phoenix Raceway, Dover International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway were, in fact, short tracks. They are not.
With my proposed schedule slashing, a lot of events from the schedule — at least the short tracks — would make up a greater percentage of the total. And, of course, I’m willing to look over any new short track added to Auto Club Speedway, if the thing ever gets built. But just one date. That’s all the big track there got annually, anyway.
As for Daytona International Speedway, we’ll still kick off the season there. There aren’t too many places in the U.S. where the weather is warm enough to race in February. But for Daytona in 2022, I propose it be a one-and-done type deal. The road course never grabbed me, and it seems unwise for any track to host two dates on consecutive weekends. As for the summertime race, it’s gone too. Somehow NASCAR never got the fact it tends to rain in the afternoons and evenings in Daytona Beach, Fla., and schedule that race appropriately. Well, I shouldn’t say they never got it. In the late 1960s and even a lot of the 1970s, the race used to start at 11 a.m. ET (on the Fourth of July, no matter what day of the week that was) well before the skies over Daytona grew stormy.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix and Atlanta Motor Speedway are next on my chopping block. Each will retain a single date, losing their second.
I know some people won’t like that I envision Talladega Superspeedway as having just one race as well. The track was designed (with the methods of the times) well before the Cup cars started producing the levels of power they do today. Hosting two races a year at Talladega is just flirting with more injury or death.
I’m not sure what to about Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track hosts two Cup dates annually, the 600 and the one that people who are a little odd in the head call the ROVAL (which sounds like a line of cheap flushable underpants). You know what? Let the track make the call on which event it hosts, but only one of them. No fair switching from the big track to the ROVAL at 300 miles.
Pocono Raceway’s back-to-back Saturday and Sunday races don’t make the cut. One of the advantages I envision to cutting tracks back to a single date a year is an ability to put more butts in the seats on the remaining date if COVID-19 protocols one day allow it again.
Sorry, but on my proposed schedule I don’t see a place for New Hampshire moving forward. It’s a track that never hosted much in the way of good racing, it was the scene of two tragedies and was part of what was then referred to as schedule realignment that cost us North Wilkesboro Speedway. Karma is a bitch, and a stone cold one at that.
Nor do I recall very fondly any of the runnings of the Brickyard 400. As far as I’m concerned, NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an experiment that failed in praying at somebody else’s church. After the tire debacle back in 2008 at the Brickyard, the race should have been trotted out back behind the shed and dispatched with a single shot.
Texas Motor Speedway gets to make a choice, too. It can either host the All-Star Race again or it can maintain a fall race points date. (As long as it promises not to whine about that date interfering with deer-hunting season.) I’d hope it’d choose to stage the points race, as the time of the All-Star Race has come and gone, with each new permutation of the concept more ridiculous than the one that preceded it.
Now that we’ve got the season trimmed down to a more manageable length, let’s do the same to the races themselves. The only ones that will be allowed to be more than 400 kilometers in length will be the Daytona 500 (the season opener) the World 600 (tradition) and the Southern 500 (the season finale at Darlington Raceway every year).
And while we’re doing some surgery, let’s trim race start times a bit, too. With the exception of tracks in the western time zone, all Cup races shall start at or before 1 p.m. ET like God and ESPN originally intended. Naturally, an exception will have to be made for the Bristol night race, but that will be the only event on the roster scheduled to run after dark not forced to do so by a weather delay. Like Ben Blake taught me, the only thing worse than rain at a racetrack is rain at a racetrack with lights.
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.