Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: The Potential Danger of NASCAR’s Long Season

I read Martin Truex Jr.’s words before I heard them.

It was 287 words of the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion explaining his mindset regarding “big decisions,” which Truex admitted he’s “bad at making” up his mind on.

And it’s not a simple decision: will the 43-year-old driver return for one more go-around of the Cup circuit?

See also
5 Points to Ponder: Martin Truex Jr, Walk-Off Winner?

Why not? He’s won three races in 2023 so far after a winless 2022, and he’s leading the point standings.

Before I watched the video of Truex, his words read like they came from a man who knew what his real answer is, even if he isn’t ready to say it out loud.

However, the video showed someone who was maybe truly at conflict.

As he rubbed his face multiple times, either out of frustration with the decision or after a long day in his racecar, Truex provided a refreshingly honest insight into his mindset.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Truex began. “You know, I was talking out there to Claire (B. Lang), and I was like, ‘This sport isn’t exactly what it appears to be sometimes. It takes a big commitment.’

“My team is amazing. They deserve the very best driver, the guy that wants it more than anyone else, and I’ve been that guy. I want to make sure that if I come back, I’m willing to do that. It takes a lot. It’s not just show up at the track, drive the car, go home. It takes a lot. It takes a lot of commitment. It’s a lot of travel. A lot of time missing things with family and friends and all those things that I’ve done for 25 years. Do I want to keep doing it and am I willing to sacrifice all those things again for my team?

“So that’s just what I’m thinking about. I don’t know that running good and winning makes a difference. It would be pretty awesome to win the championship and walk off into the sunset.

“I just don’t really know. I don’t really know. I’m bad at making big decisions. I told somebody out there, I was like, I’ve been looking at salt water boats for five, six years. Love to fish, spend a lot of time on the water, and I haven’t pulled the trigger on a boat because I just can’t make up my mind on what I want. I’m just bad at big decisions.

“I finally am about to buy one maybe this week. I wish I had more time to figure out what I want to do next year, but I don’t, so I’ll know soon and you’ll know soon.”

That’s 287 words where Truex seems to be closing the door more than leaving it open and speaking in the past tense about his current job more than the present, or even future, tense.

We’re already beyond the point last season, during the Nashville Superspeedway race weekend, when Truex announced he would be back in 2023.

And as much as Truex would likely love the combo of winning a championship and announcing his retirement in the same breath, that’s not realistic.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Is Martin Truex Jr. the New Championship Favorite?

As Truex said, while he wishes he had more time to make up his mind, “I don’t, so I’ll know soon and you’ll know soon.”

For me, the most important part of Truex’s answer were the 126 words devoted to how taxing the NASCAR Cup schedule is.

“Big commitment.”

“It takes a lot.”

“Sacrifice.”

“All those things that I’ve done for 25 years.”

Truex first competed in the Cup Series in 2004 with two starts, but his first full-time season wasn’t until 2006.

For every year of that full-time tenure, there have been 36 points races and two exhibition races on the schedule.

Up until last year, the regular-season schedule featured at least two off weeks. Now there’s only one.

That’s a slog. A grind.

However you want to describe it, that kind of year-in, year-out schedule will eventually take something out of you.

That’s compared to the 1992 season, the last season with just 29 points races. After that, as the sport exploded in popularity and profits, NASCAR slowly added more tracks and more races.

“Oh, I vote for less every day of the week,” Truex said recently, according to The Athletic. “It would be nice to have a few weekends off throughout the summer.”

Truex isn’t the only one who lamented the schedule length.

“It’s a lot,” Denny Hamlin told The Athletic. “But I don’t ever see it going backwards just simply because of the revenue.”

Or, as Gordon Gekko said in 1987:

Then there was seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2021, a year removed from retiring from his full-time Cup career and enjoying the much shorter schedules provided by IndyCar and sports cars.

“I’ve always firmly felt that there’s just too much racing in NASCAR,” Johnson said. “That’s my opinion, and I’ve had that conversation with executives at NASCAR. Reducing the schedule down to 25-28 races, I think, would be the ideal way to go about it.”

But really, the most striking thing about what Truex said Monday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is how it contrasted with what much younger competitors said when asked the same question that Truex and Hamlin were.

Christopher Bell, age 28: “It doesn’t matter to me. I’ll be there if there’s 50 (races), I’ll be there if there’s 20.”

Ryan Preece, 32: “I’m for whatever keeps me at the racetrack. Thirty-eight races is fine with me, I don’t have a problem with it. My job is to race a racecar, so if it requires 40-45 races, that’s my job.

Tyler Reddick, 27: “I’m the crazy one, I’d like to see more races. I get bored during the week; I’d rather race more and prep less. We race more, we wouldn’t be able to prep as much.”

The only other respondent who was team “less is more” was William Byron, but like Hamlin, he said “I don’t think that will change anytime soon, so I’m not too worried about it.”

Those are drivers in their late 20s and early 30s.

How will their tune change if they’re still competing when they’re in their early 40s?

What would Truex’s tune have been Monday if he knew there were three or four off weekends awaiting him in 2024?

Years removed from its peak, NASCAR wants as much money as possible, especially when it comes to that sweet, sweet TV revenue.

But what if its desire for profits winds up pushing out its money-making stars sooner than either party would naturally want?

2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com. 

The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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14 Comments
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DoninAjax

The F1 season is longer with fewer races. Let NA$CAR lengthen the season with more off weekends off for their “entertainment”. They could start the season in November like it used to be, maybe on an actual road course.

John

Returning to a west coast season opener (or two) that are points races while ditching the unnecessary races like the Clash and All Star events could provide the much needed weeks off over the spring and summer. It would allow new teams a chance to gel prior to the biggest event of the year.
Plan B is to use mid-week events to stuff 36 points races in prior to football season (which interestingly enough would make the Southern 500 the season finale). The only problem with all the conjecture is that profit drives the decisions and TV controls the profit. Drivers may complain, but most of us only get, at best, 4 to 6 weeks of vacation and don’t get paid nearly as well. The NFL cycles through players way faster than Nascar does drivers and they seem to be doing ok financially. If SRX draws more than 1M on Thursday nights, I expect mid week shows will become part of next TV contract. But during Covid, the viewership data suggests that number may be unachievable, and most certainly will be if start times are foolishly late. Despite catering to the west coast with start times, there is never any west coast market that makes the top 10 for a weekly broadcast. Perhaps catering mid-week shows to the desires of those in Greensboro, Greenville, Indianapolis, Nashville, etc may be an intelligent way to ‘reward’ the loyal fan base.

Christopher Lowe

I agree with you completely, with all the catering to the west coast market I always find it amazing that majority of NASCAR highest rated tv markets are the east coast/mid-west. The tell tale sign has to be the clash. The race was held in downtown LA and barely drew 40,000 spectators.

Craig P.

When I was younger I didn’t want the season to end. A race every weekend was fine by me. Now that I’m older I find the current Nascar product is boring. I actually went to the races and watched all the practice days. Like most sports they’ve lost the purity of their sport. Money and greed has ruined it. It’s too scripted and sometimes fixed with Nascar’s manipulation of cautions and timing of cautions. There’s no fixing it now. You can’t put the devil back in the bottle. No genies here to fix it!

Ted

The word manipulated may be too strong,.. perhaps one should say highly ‘influenced.’

Bill B

I wouldn’t say I find it boring as much as I find it arbitrary. The rules have made both winning races and the championship more of a crapshoot than it was 20 years ago. That’s what I find frustrating. You watch a race for 4 hours and in the last 10 laps the running order is totally turned upside down.What’s the point?

Kurt Smith

I would add that it’s the same way with a season. When a champion was determined by consistent excellence over 36 races, they were all worth watching. Now that NASCAR has determined that the last race must be a game seven moment, there’s little reason to tune in to the other 35.

I’m like Craig, I never used to want the season to end either. Or at least I liked that you didn’t have to wait too long for the season to start again.

Bill B

I think the attitudes of the younger drivers vs. the older drivers says it all regarding the length of the season. Maybe that’s why drivers should retire once they’ve had enough. If you don’t want to do it anymore, move over and let some one that does.

Funny that I’ve never heard many baseball players or fans complain about 162 regular season games plus playoffs and a season that stretches from March to October.

Kathleen Kulesza

Nascar could shorten the season by getting rid of the exhibition races. Baseball players don’t complain about the length of the season because they are paid more than Nascar drivers.

DoninAjax

How much are baseball players paid per at bat?

Marc

Some baseball players do complain about the length of the season. When the owners wanted to expand the playoffs because playoff games are where the TV money is and because it would keep more teams in contention later into the season, a number of players said they wanted the regular season cut back by a week and a half to around 154 games.

Kurt Smith

A whole new pile of asterisks in the record books.

CEEGEE

Lot’s of key points are missing in the context of the point that the author appears to be trying to make. 1. What is the average career length of a NASCAR driver verses other pro sports? 2. What affect has the major shift of today’s drivers now beginning racing at age 5 or 6 verses not being able to legally start locally racing until 16 or 18 in prior generations? That adds 10 years or more of commitment. 3. Why the need to assume that the two interviews with Truex are connected, when in fact, Truex took the time in the Lang interview to point out the “off track demands” but never once mentioned the length of the season? 4. Considering that the average driver starts the huge commitment to racing at least 10 years earlier, what, if any, does that mean to the current average retirement age verses the retirement age of drivers of previous generations when the season was shorter? Was it a year, 5 years? 5. In today’s pro sports, all seasons are a grind. The more physical sports require a year round dedication on top of the 162 game baseball season, the 80+ game seasons of the NBA & NHL etc. Not to mention the grind of the extensive travel required in those sports verses NASCAR. 6. At what point in any pro sport, NASCAR included, are athletes not contemplating retirement in their 40’s? None. 7. The adjectives used by Truex are not uncommon to athletes near retirement in other sports. To me there’s no “there, there” in the point the author is trying to make. It’s seems more like an attempt to take a shot at what the author refers to as that “sweet, sweet TV revenue.” Maybe it’s a lack of awareness of the other pro sports, or maybe it’s a shot at NASCAR? Either way, bring the “there-there” that makes Truex any different than other athletes in their 40’s and I’ll take the article seriously.

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