Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Why Does the So-Called Real Season Start This Week?

Time and time again, fans of all three of NASCAR’s national series have heard from select drivers that the real season begins this week.

These feelings coincide with the first non-pack racing track of the season — and on a 1.5-mile track no less. It’s a track length many drivers feel that the current generation of NASCAR Cup Series car was made for, and where, to this point at least, the cars have raced best.

Drivers haven’t been shy about their feelings on the subject, especially as of late. Some have even gone to the length of saying that most of the field feels similarly, like Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell.

“I think the majority of the drivers would say that the real season starts next week,” Bell said before last weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I personally don’t like having two speedways back to back, and I would think that a lot of people are on the same page.”

Tyler Reddick, driver of the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota Camry, also said he feels the first two weeks have a much higher rate of volatility than the standard 1.5-mile tracks (not counting Atlanta, which is a mile-and-a-half in length but sports pack racing since its repave).

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“You know, we’re pretty much guaranteed to wreck stuff at Daytona [International Speedway],” Reddick said. “Atlanta didn’t seem as bad last year. We had a couple of factors play into that. You know, the first race, for whatever reason, everyone played a little calmly. There wasn’t a whole lot of chaos.”

Reddick’s sentiments bring up a whole other argument: making it to the end of races. Part of the variability that turns drivers off from tracks like Daytona, Talladega Superspeedway and Atlanta is the idea of crashing out. They’re much less likely to crash out at a non-drafting track, going back to the same precedent of driver skill and error being the key at 1.5-mile tracks not named Atlanta as opposed to the anything-can-happen nature that superspeedways bring.

A lot of that stems simply from driver opinions, but there are manufacturer lines to ponder as well. Minus the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona, which is only half a race, Toyota has not won on a superspeedway since the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2021. What, then, do Ford and Chevrolet drivers think of the so-called real season starting next week?

Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 2 Ford Mustang for Team Penske, believes that the season has very much already begun.

“Some guys are approaching it like the two weeks are throwaways,” he said. “They’re two races on the schedule that you can win, so that’s definitely not how we’ve approached it. But I think that next week in Vegas is really a true test of a lot of hard work in other areas with the car from a Ford standpoint, from a team standpoint and kind of our normal practice and qualifying.”

The real rub that some drivers have with superspeedways and now Atlanta since its reconfiguration is this: There’s too much variability. Fans love it, because anyone can win at a heavy drafting track. But driver talent and equipment matter much more at tracks like Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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Not counting Atlanta, there are five 1.5-mile tracks that NASCAR will visit throughout the course of this season among the top three series. Counting Atlanta in the superspeedway group, there are only three of this kind. The rest are short tracks and road courses. This means, much like Cindric referred to, the non-drafting 1.5-milers are more of the norm than superspeedways.

There’s plenty of evidence to support the drivers’ argument that superspeedways are more unpredictable as well. All one has to do is look back at last season. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Daytona 500, and despite having one of the team’s best seasons, he still went winless the rest of the year.

Superspeedways are here to stay. However, as more and more drivers voice their concerns, NASCAR will attempt to rectify the situation in a way that it thinks can please both the drivers and fans. Last weekend’s finish was the culmination of those efforts with the package brought to Atlanta.

As the Next Gen car keeps progressing, fans and drivers alike can hope that the racing improves to the point where drivers consider the real Cup season all 38 races instead of leaving six of them to the wind.

About the author

Tanner Marlar is a staff writer for On3 Sports' Maroon and White Daily covering Mississippi State Athletics, an AP Wire reporter, an award-winning sports columnist and talk show host and master's student at Mississippi State University. Soon, Tanner will be pursuing a PhD. in Communicative Research.

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