Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Are Rumored Track Changes Too Much Too Soon?

While NASCAR series were off last week, the NASCAR rumor mill was running at full song. While this time of year can gin up discussion of what drivers are going where, the hot topics last week were more focused on the venues themselves.

A few changes that piqued our interest were the potential elimination of dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway, returning Indianapolis to the oval, as well as the fall event at Charlotte.

Given NASCAR’s fondness for road courses the last couple of years, coupled with the fact the Next Gen Car was developed specifically with road courses in mind – independent rear suspension, sequential shifter, larger wheels and brakes – this all sounded a bit far reaching.

Is NASCAR riding the pendulum back the other way too soon, or have they seen enough in 2023 to warrant returning to high-speed ovals as bread and butter of the series?

This week, Luken Glover and Garrett Cook dive in to offer their perspectives.

High-Speed Tracks are Back in Style

A recurring question in NASCAR today is how to get it back to its peak. 

When was its peak?

While NASCAR exploded in popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s, the peak television-wise came in the mid-2000s. There were several reasons for that. The sport had household names such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jimmie Johnson and others.

Celebrities and corporate America had taken notice, delivering some of the most iconic sponsors in the sport. 

But guess which tracks were at the focus of that era? The high-speed, intermediate ovals. That’s not to say short tracks weren’t a popular brand, but tracks such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, then California Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, and many others were in their prime. And the fans loved it.

There weren’t many better noises than hearing the roar of 850hp+ Gen 4 engines flying down the straightaways at intermediates approaching 9,000rpm. And on top of that, the action was not void of thrills either. 

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Josh Berry Replacing Kevin Harvick at SHR

But as television numbers went down and the body styles changed, intermediates lost their luster. The racing became extremely strung out, a dominant driver was near untouchable, and the aero package made it hard to pass the deeper we got into the Gen 6 era.

However, look where we are at now.

In Jeff Gluck’s “Was It A Good Race?” poll, five races thus far in 2023 have received a “yes” total of 80% or higher. Four of them have been on tracks 1.3 miles or longer. Both Kansas Speedway and Charlotte received 90% “yes” votes. And if you look at which races scored a 75% favorable rating or higher since the Next Gen car came in, most of them are on the high-speed ovals. 

Take the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, for example. During the Gen 6 era, NASCAR’s longest race and one of its crown jewels had become a perennial snoozefest. Who can forget Martin Truex Jr.’s 392 laps led in 2016, Kyle Busch’s 377 laps led in 2018, or Kyle Larson’s 321 laps led in 2021?

In 2022, there were 31 lead changes among 13 drivers in a race that many considered one of the best of the season. It was the same story this year, as there were 31 lead changes once again. However, the 2022 edition had 18 cautions and this year’s edition featured 16, proving that the Coke 600 is a test of endurance in a different way. 

I always like to refer to something I heard from Clint Bowyer prior to the Next Gen rolling out. He said he missed the days of cars spinning out on their own on intermediates.

That’s not saying that we should watch for cautions and that drivers should tear equipment up, but drivers and fans alike want a challenge. Seeing drivers push their cars to the limits and sometimes slip up on their own proves how difficult it can be. And we are seeing that again.

With the exception of Texas, tracks like Kansas, Michigan, Auto Club, Darlington, and many others have featured improved racing with the Next Gen car.

But to the contrary, the majority of short track and road course races the last two years have been duds.

On short tracks, perhaps it is how much shifting drivers have to do on tracks they weren’t used to shifting on. But for both short tracks and road courses alike, they have become races of following the leader and gambling on pit road to gain track position. 

Look at what happened to Ryan Preece at Martinsville Speedway this season. He easily had a car capable of winning, yet a speeding penalty mid-way through spoiled his chances of winning because of how difficult it was to pass. 

As far as road courses go, Sonoma Raceway gave us our most recent look at the car’s struggles on the lefts and rights. It wasn’t very exciting, passing was a challenge, and strategy had little effect on the outcome. Outside of Circuit of the Americas and Watkins Glen International, road courses have simply been underwhelming with the Next Gen car.

At the same time, road courses should not be the focus of NASCAR. This is not Formula 1, IndyCar, or the Supercars Championship. This is a sport rooted in oval racing, pushing the limits of man and machine at high speeds with close-quarters racing. Tracks like intermediates and entertaining short tracks deserve that spectacle.

If NASCAR can figure out a package for those two track types, this Next Gen car has a bright future. But either way, there is a reason that NASCAR is exploring ditching road courses in favor of high-speed ovals, and it’s because those races are entertaining once again. – Luken Glover

A Step Backwards in the Wrong Direction

With the rumors and speculation swirling that we are losing the Bristol dirt race fueling the call for more changes in the schedule, I have decided it’s time to pump the brakes on that line of thinking.

While the performance of the Next Gen car has been very questionable on road courses and short tracks, I think removing any of the road course dates on the schedule would be a huge step in the wrong direction. For years NASCAR has fought for legitimacy as a style of racing that takes skill. Detractors have always said ignorant things such as “all they do is turn left” or “drive around in a circle all day.”

When I talk to my non-NASCAR friends, that’s always their first reaction to me when I say I love this sport. What better way to display the skills of these drivers, these athletes, than by taking them out of their comfort zone and asking them to excel?

That’s the challenge that road courses and dirt races present in the context of legitimacy of these drivers being some of the best in the world. The amount of precision required to wheel these humongous vehicles around places like Circuit of the Americas, Sonoma, and the Charlotte ROVAL cannot be understated.

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Stat Sheet: Year 1 of Next Gen Increased Parity Out Front, But Not the Case in Year 2

Sure, the car is meant to behave like more of a road course car, if you will. With its rack and pinion steering system, IMSA-like independent rear suspension, and sequential shifter, it should. The fact that it doesn’t isn’t a detriment to the racetrack that it happens to be on. The Next Gen car races atrociously on tracks like Martinsville Speedway and at the recently revived North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Are we really going to blame Martinsville, the site of so many great finishes and moments in the history of this sport for that?

The problem doesn’t exist with the racing surfaces. It’s obviously the car. And let’s not forget that road course racing has been a staple in NASCAR for decades, just as short track racing is. Changing the schedule around at a constant clip is not going to solve anything long-term.

An important fact to remember is that the sanctioning body didn’t change much about the schedule for several decades. The Gen 4, 5, and 6 all raced on essentially the same tracks over and over again for years, making for a predictable championship outcome with the Chase and Playoff formats.

That allowed teams and NASCAR itself to work together to create awesome racing experiences on many different tracks. Watkins Glen put on as good a show or better than ovals like Michigan or Texas. Then they implemented the infamous 550
horsepower package for intermediate tracks in the Gen 6 era. Then in response to the criticism that the Gen 6 wasn’t racing well on those tracks pushed the development of the Gen 7.

While they really don’t need to correct anything about the intermediate package, it’s clear that the road course and short track package need work. Why not just leave the schedule alone and take the mountains of data being collected at the racetrack to improve the performance of the car? Viewership may take a dive, but wouldn’t fantastic racing bring those people back? Shouldn’t that be what they are striving for?

I don’t have the answer to those questions. Only NASCAR does.

The issue of the Bristol dirt race is entirely different from the issue with road courses. The Bristol dirt race is a spectacle of a bygone era. The days when Richard Petty and David Pearson would fight it out on asphalt one week and dirt the next are long gone. That’s what makes Bristol dirt special.

I know logistically it’s most likely a nightmare for Marcus Smith and Speedway Motorsports to put on an event in which thousands of pounds of Tennessee clay is hauled in and out of The Last Great Coliseum.

However, the uniqueness and intensity of these guys really putting themselves to the test on a completely different surface is too much fun not to at least try and enjoy. Bristol is an amazing racetrack without the dirt, offering probably the best short track racing with the Next Gen car.

But the upside is tremendous. It would help if guys like Kyle Larson and others would get behind the idea instead of being critical of it at every opportunity.

Whether it’s at Bristol dirt or even somewhere else like Eldora Speedway, dirt racing belongs in NASCAR. The very roots of this sport grew from the muddy dirt pits of the south. As is the path of most things, it went away.

For a fleeting moment, we’ve gotten it back. It’d be a shame to lose it again. – Garrett Cook

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

Garrett joined Frontstretch as a news writer in 2023, and became a fantasy racing and betting writer in 2024. Hailing from the heart of coal country in southern West Virginia,  he's a married father of three and currently enrolled in the Physical Therapy Assistant Program at New River Community Technical College in Beaver, WV. He has been a racing fan since 1998, primarily watching NASCAR, but branching out to F1 and IndyCar as his love for motorsports has grown.

Follow on X @Cook_g9

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dawg

I’ve watched every time the Cup cars ran at Indy. including the first test session.
I’ve yet to see a decent race on the full track, & the only reason it’s considered a crown jewel, is because they say it is.
If the infield track was good enough for F1, it ‘s good enough for NASCAR.
They’ve got it right, they just need to stay the course.
The only drivers crying to go back to the big track are the ones who’s road course skills aren’t up to snuff.

As for the Bristol dirt, if they feel they need a dirt race, & I enjoy the change of pace. Then find a real dirt track, bring in some temp bleachers, find off track parking with a shuttle service, & go for it.
The current Bristol isn’t the Bristol of old, but it’s still one of the best tracks they’ve got, leave it alone.

Bobby K

I think the author missed Boyer’s facetious joke completely when he quoted Boyer about missing cars spinning out on their own. Boyer is the poster child for cars spinning out on their own. ( See: Spingate!) Taken literally, the quote is also incorrect because how many times in the last two seasons have we seen RWR cars crash in to the wall or spin out for no reason whenever NASCAR needs a late race caution??

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