Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: And So It Begins Again

Welcome to 2024. NASCAR’s off-season is brief and this season came at us fast. The new season finds us in a familiar place of perfect anticipation, but also at odds with Mother Nature and with a few brand new questions.

In the interest of getting a few pages of notes off my desk before the engines fire off, here are a few things I’m cleaning out of the racing drawer to kick off another season.

First of all, let’s talk about the rain. We’re exactly two race weekends into the NASCAR season and, including the NASCAR-owned ARCA Menards Series, four of five races have been rescheduled due to rain. Only the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway has run on its scheduled day and time.

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Tracking the Trucks: Red Flags Already Flying on Truck Series Season

The Busch Light Clash, originally supposed to roll off on Feb. 4, got moved up a day due to strong storms that were forecast to hit southern California at the originally scheduled race time. Faced with possibly having to wait until Wednesday to race, NASCAR squeezed the event in a day early and got out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum without trouble.

Two weeks later at Daytona, the Cup Series got off to a good start, with qualifying runs on Wednesday (Feb. 14) and the twin qualifier races on Thursday (Feb. 15) rolling off as scheduled. The trucks also saw no last-minute adjustments to the docket, racing Friday night as advertised. That night turned into a doubleheader when the ARCA event was moved from Saturday (Feb. 17) as a wet forecast loomed.

Xfinity Series qualifying miraculously took place on Saturday, but then the skies opened for the next 36 hours, forcing both the Xfinity Series United Rentals 300 and Sunday’s (Feb. 18) Daytona 500 to be slotted in for a Monday doubleheader.

It’s not what anyone wants. Teams and fans alike scramble to change flights and extend hotel stays. A lot of fans don’t have the luxury of staying and missing a day of work, so will have to miss the race altogether. NASCAR doesn’t make these decisions without thinking of the teams or fans, but there’s no way it can please everyone short of controlling the weather.

We can talk about schedule changes, but even if the season opened at Phoenix Raceway or Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they have to go back to the east coast after that. And yes, it still rains in Daytona and Atlanta in March (though the forecast in Atlanta looks good so far).

It is true that some weather problems could be avoided with earlier start times, particularly in summer, and NASCAR should consider earlier start times for a lot of races. Actually all of them, but that’s another story.

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2-Headed Monster: Should Daytona Host the Season Opener?

The reality is that if you want to blame climate change, terrible luck or angry racing deities, weather is sometimes going to happen, and NASCAR will have to make a decision that some people won’t like. Short of going back to iRacing, it’s just part of the game.

Try and forget about the weather for a minute, though, and think about Daytona, and the opening of another racing season. For a few days, the entire season is a blank slate, with only possibilities and nothing yet written in the record books. 

That means, at least for a little while, any driver can win at Daytona or any other track. Every team can look for a miracle. Every fan can imagine one perfect day.

The hot topic entering the season is NASCAR’s charter system — the sanctioning body and owners are at odds, with NASCAR reportedly refusing to meet with team owners as a group and owners allegedly retaining antitrust lawyers.

The owners would disagree, but NASCAR was run as a dictatorship for its first 50 years, and that worked. It was NASCAR’s way or find somewhere else to race, and funny enough, nobody really wanted to do that.

The charter system wasn’t terrible in theory. Had NASCAR approached it right, it could have led to things like a spending cap (turn over your books if you want to keep your automatic entry) which would have benefitted everyone long term but hurt the big teams in the short term.

Instead, it’s led to a hostile environment for new teams to enter the sport. Eventually, NASCAR is going to need new blood. Current ownership is aging, and while their teams will pass into capable hands for now, down the road is not as clear.

Sometimes, what’s good for the owners in terms of the bottom line isn’t good for the fans in terms of the sport being something they want to continue to support. Fans want nothing more and nothing less than a slate of good races every year.
Even after 20 years, many still have not accepted a playoff system as producing a legitimate champion.

Fans don’t like watching if it becomes increasingly difficult for talented drivers to get rides in favor of wealthy ones. They don’t like predictability. At some point, the way both NASCAR and the owners are steering the sport is going to hit a dead end with the fans.

On the other hand, one area where everyone should be grateful for changes is driver safety. Ryan Blaney took a brutal hit during the second Duel race on Thursday. He walked away, a little battered and sore, but generally just fine.

Because of safety innovations, there’s an entire generation of race fans who have never seen an on-track fatality. They’ve seen some scary incidents like Blaney’s, including Ryan Preece’s wild flipping ride last fall at Daytona. They’ve seen cars on their roofs and waited out a couple of tense hours after Ryan Newman was transported to a Daytona hospital after being pulled from his car. Newman walked out of the hospital on his own a couple of days later.

Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500 was the capstone in a rash of racing deaths in 2000 and 2001 across Cup, Xfinity and Truck competition. Those drivers are honored every time NASCAR takes to the track by SAFER barriers and head restraints and crush panels in the racecars. The danger will always lurk just outside of the turns, but as long as NASCAR and teams continue to push for more, it can be mostly kept at bay. Hopefully it will stay that way.

If you found Thursday’s qualifying races exciting when both came down to the wire before the field for the 500 was set, you weren’t alone. There was tension in the air as the various scenarios played out on track. There were so many ifs and maybes for the four drivers wrestling over two starting spots.

See also
Jimmie Johnson, Kaz Grala Battle Their Ways Into Daytona 500 Field

One of those was seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. He had to race his way into the show, and after some minor crash damage, that was no sure thing. Johnson squeezed in, along with Kaz Grala, but Thursday was the closest he’d ever come to not racing the opener.

However, it wasn’t the only close call Johnson had. As a rookie in 2002, Johnson won the pole for his first Great American Race. Had he not been fast enough to qualify on the front row, he’d have gone home empty-handed.

Eleven drivers failed to qualify for the 500 that year, including Roush Racing’s No. 16. Johnson had a mechanical failure in his qualifying race, finishing dead last. With no owner points or past titles to fall back on, the No. 48 would have been out of luck.

So here we go, race fans. Anything can happen in racing, and we’re all just along for the ride. Hopefully NASCAR and the owners will do what’s best for the long-term health of the sport when they make some critical decisions.

In the meantime, hopefully your favorite driver will win in 2024 and may we have some fair skies for the races.

It all starts over again right now.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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