Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: The Rise and Fall of the NASCAR Cup Series Night Race

To the dismay of racing fans around the world, NASCAR’s contribution to the greatest weekend of motorsports had to wait until Monday (May 29). Washed out by rain on Sunday evening, the Coca-Cola 600 finally got rolling Monday afternoon. Ryan Blaney ended a lengthy winless drought after a long day at the track.

Postponing the race until Monday turned out to be a smart play. If NASCAR had tried to start the race on Sunday as scheduled, there was a good chance that it would have gotten called early. The race’s biggest draw is its distance, so finding a way to run all 600 miles should be a top priority.

In fact, fans still got to watch something on Monday that has become all too rare in NASCAR – watching a Cup Series night race. In the last five years or so, the number of night races on the Cup schedule has sharply declined. The Coca-Cola 600 is usually a day into night race due to its length, the often-hot temperatures in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend, and to avoid direct competition with the Indianapolis 500.

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Charlotte Motor Speedway, of course, was also the first large track to install a modern lighting system. While the All-Star Race was the impetus for adding lights to Charlotte, the track started scheduling the Coca-Cola 600 to begin in the early evening and end under the lights in 1993. NASCAR’s great endurance race has been a staple of night racing ever since.

Over the next two decades, night racing remained a growing trend in NASCAR. Following Charlotte’s lead, many of the intermediate tracks and large speedways built their own lighting system. Daytona International Speedway’s 400-mile event first became a night race in 1998. That same year, Richmond Raceway’s first race moved from late winter to late spring and became a second night race for the Virginia short track. Night racing at Charlotte grew so popular that its 500-mile fall race became an after-dark event in 2003.

But it was in the mid-2000s that night racing really exploded. Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500, removed from its traditional Labor Day date, became a night race in 2004. California Speedway picked up Darlington’s old date and added a night race of its own. The next year, Phoenix Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway, two tracks that gained second dates, had their new events end under the lights. Night racing came to Homestead Miami Speedway in 2005 and Chicagoland Speedway in 2007. Other tracks like Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Kansas Speedway, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway initially hosted night races for the lower NASCAR series, but they too would become regular hosts for Cup Series racing under the lights. 

However, just as quickly as night racing expanded on the Cup Series tour, several tracks began to trend away from racing after dark in the 2010s. Phoenix’s night race became an afternoon race in 2011 when the event moved from April to February. That same year, Chicagoland moved its race to the first weekend of the Chase and changed the start time to Sunday afternoon. California Speedway (by that time rechristened to Auto Club Speedway) moved its only date to March and ceased night racing for the Cup Series.

Even bigger changes have come in more recent years. Texas’ spring race reverted back to the afternoon in 2017. Richmond’s spring race shifted to daytime in 2016, back to night in 2018, and back to day again in 2021, with the second race following along last year. Kansas’ spring race, a night event since 2014, switched to daytime in 2021. Kentucky’s last Cup Series race to date was a daytime event in 2020. Homestead is no longer a day into night race, nor is Las Vegas’ playoff race. Even the much-hyped Martinsville Speedway night race fizzled out after three years.

What has caused NASCAR to move away from night racing? The biggest factor is NASCAR’s efforts to get Cup Series races on TV when people are most likely to watch. Sunday afternoon tends to produce better ratings than Saturday night when viewers might be out doing other things. Similarly, the autumn Sunday night races have largely fallen by the wayside so that NASCAR avoids direct competition with the NFL. There is also the belief that daytime conditions, when the track is hot and slick, produce better racing than what the same track would offer under the lights.

As a result, night racing has reverted to what it was in the mid-90s, only once in a while for special occasions. The current slate of night races includes both events at Bristol Motor Speedway, Daytona’s 400-mile race in August, and non-points events like the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, the Daytona 500 qualifying races, and the All-Star Race. The Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 remain day into night races, and even the Daytona 500 in recent years has ended after sunset. Nashville Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway will also host day into night races later this year.

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That simply doesn’t feel like enough. NASCAR may have practical concerns about avoiding night racing, but races after dark always have a special energy. Seeing the lights reflect off the glistening wraps of the cars, watching sparks fly when drivers make contact, it is all part of the presentation and experience.

That’s the real root of the problem. Night racing is about the aesthetic, and aesthetic is difficult to quantify. If night racing is special because it feels different from day racing, how often should NASCAR host night races to preserve that special feeling? I don’t think the tracks, or the sanctioning body itself, have been able to answer that question.

I can’t help but wonder if, over the next few years, the pendulum might swing back in favor of night races. As NASCAR continues to work on a new TV deal, it might be inclined to explore more options for night racing. Even the Next Gen car, which seems less temperature sensitive and races better on intermediate tracks than the Gen 6, may reenergize a movement toward night racing. In its never-ending quest for ratings, reaching new markets, and trying to meet the ever-changing tastes of its fans, perhaps NASCAR night racing will get a second act in the near future.    

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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Kevin in SoCal

What happened before the 90’s to the “World 600” before Charlotte had lights? Did they start right after the Indy 500?


They used to run at the same time. There was quite the war between them. If the Indy pole was $50,000 the Charlotte pole was $75,000. If Indy was $100,000 the Charlotte pole was $100,000 and a car. Charlotte changed the time so drivers could do both. Indy used to start at noon Eastern almost to the second of GMT but the network has screwed that up too now to get in more commercials. The Daytona 500 used to get the green flag at 12:45 and the telecast started at 12:40.