(With apologies to Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli and whoever actually came up with the original saying.)
1. NASCAR Just Made Stuff up on the Fly with Race Lengths in Chicago
In the aftermath of the Chicago Street Course race weekend, there was no lack of talking points. Whatever one feels about the actual racing product — and it’s pretty clear many people feel some type of way about it — the combination of novelty, weather and folks scrambling to google Shane van Gisbergen meant that people who don’t usually pay attention to NASCAR perked up again for the first time since, well, probably the “Hail Melon” move by Ross Chastain last fall.
That’s a plus for the sport. What isn’t so great for those of us who ride with it on a regular basis is the perplexing way NASCAR handled the lengths of both the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Cup Series races.
Longtime fans know that NASCAR races don’t always go to their scheduled distances for reasons including darkness, weather and the “cautions breed cautions” nature of overtime. As well, they understand that many of the sport’s rules are, as Captain Barbossa of Pirates of the Caribbean fame might say, “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
But seeing a race reach either the halfway point or the end of stage two to be declared official was something that felt more set in stone than most. NASCAR took a chisel to that anyway, declaring Cole Custer the winner of what turned out to be a very short Xfinity event.
Perhaps even more frustrating, even though it was more conventional, was NASCAR’s call to shorten the Cup race from 100 laps to 75 because it would have otherwise run out of daylight. The only thing that kept that decision from becoming a complete debacle was that eventual winner van Gisbergen wasn’t one of the drivers who benefited from it and had to race his way to victory, as is right and good.
There was nothing anybody could have done about the rain that fell all weekend (a very unlucky occurrence, considering Chicago had hardly any precipitation the previous five weeks), which was the primary cause of the improvisational nature of these choices. But like so many of NASCAR’s problems, it caused much of this one itself.
To wit …
2. Race Start Times Are Getting out of Hand
Besides the storm clouds, the other factor putting a time constraint on the Chicago street race was the truly head-scratching 5 p.m. ET start time. This was for a race that was in the Central time zone, not one on the west coast.
The rain may have prevented the Cup Series from firing engines earlier anyway, but you know what would have given NASCAR some flexibility to adjust to the weather conditions before the green flag dropped? Scheduling the race to start about three hours earlier.
It’s well known by now to those who follow the sport that the reason race start times have migrated later into Sunday afternoon is that NASCAR’s broadcast partners prefer them that way. This is a shame because earlier starts are better for literally everyone else: fans, drivers, crew members and anyone working at the track.
And for anyone saying NASCAR doesn’t have a choice, that’s silly. Despite much hand-wringing over declining ratings for races, the truth is that NASCAR has held up much better than most other things on TV as cord-cutting and streaming continue to lay waste to the traditional broadcast landscape. Live sports are one of the few things left that can guarantee an audience of several million viewers.
NASCAR has more leverage than it thinks regarding when its events are held because its partners’ choices of what to show other than races are essentially guaranteed to have smaller audiences. If ever there was a line in the sand for the governing body to push back against FOX and NBC, this weekend was it.
3. Street Course Races Should Be Cup Series Only
The other way NASCAR handcuffed itself logistically in Chicago was by having both Xfinity and Cup Series races there. It’s not hard to understand why; a true street course takes considerable time and expense to set up, so making it a full weekend with two events is an attractive proposition. In terms of drawing new eyeballs to stock car racing, two shots at it are also better than one.
Alas, the worst-case scenario for having both series compete in a limited window played out in Chicago. It was widely reported that there could have been racing Monday if needed, but no later than that.
Had rain prevented any racing from being done Sunday, however, it’s hard to imagine there would have been time to both finish the Xfinity Series race and run the whole Cup race as well. This is true at more traditional racing venues at times as well, but the nature of street courses makes the urgency that much greater.
If Xfinity teams were mad at sticking around for another day just to not race, imagine if they had to hang out for two.
This is easily preventable going forward by simply making any street course race weekend a Cup-only affair. Not only does it give more room for the Cup event to slide around if the weather rears its head again, but there’s something to be said for having something unique for each national series.
Cup can have street courses. Dirt racing was much cooler when it was just the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series at Eldora Speedway. Someone can think up something else for Xfinity.
4. Shane van Gisbergen Just Made the Road Course Ringer Cool Again
The idea of ringers in stock car racing is one that’s usually been more romantic than rooted in reality. It’s fun to picture someone from a related but different discipline of racing showing up and outrunning the Cup Series stars, but it never happens.
Except now it has.
As noted above, it’s not like van Gisbergen lucked into his victory either. This wasn’t a fuel mileage gambit or strategy call, but an honest-to-goodness “race by the other contenders to win” type of victory.
It’s hard to imagine the New Zealander’s triumph won’t be good for the sport. Teams should be more willing to embrace specialists on road and street courses after the number of ringers had been declining in recent years. Cup regulars will have to up their game on street circuits just as they have on road courses.
And perhaps van Gisbergen will embolden drivers from around the world to take a shot at NASCAR since there’s a chance to wind up in victory lane. In other words, there’s no guarantee this race made it more likely we’ll see a Lewis Hamilton in a stock car, but it definitely didn’t hurt.
5. Trackhouse Is Heating up at Exactly the Right Time
Don’t look now, but the 2022 darling of the sport, Trackhouse Racing, has now won two races in a row with two different drivers.
The wins couldn’t have come at a better time. While Trackhouse flexed on the Cup Series last year with three wins (two by Chastain and one by Daniel Suarez), it had been shut out in 2023 prior to Nashville Superspeedway.
Now things are looking much rosier for the organization as the stretch run to the playoffs plays out. Unless NASCAR really stretches its guidelines, van Gisbergen won’t be there, but Chastain definitely will. Suarez is only six points behind Ty Gibbs for the final postseason spots and 15 behind Bubba Wallace for 15th, so he’s very much in the hunt (though he hasn’t been great after starting the season with three straight top 10s) even if he fails to claim a checkered flag of his own.
It’s the kind of momentum that can’t help but make you feel Trackhouse will be heard from come playoff time. Maybe even enough to make you yell “Dale!”
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