Fewer than 10 Cup Series races could feature practice or qualifying in 2021.
NASCAR stopped hosting practice and qualifying at its races when it resumed racing in May during the coronavirus pandemic. That trend is going to continue in 2021 as NASCAR could have as many as 28 races that aren’t preceded with any on-track activity.
“We've certainly learned a lot this year, most good in terms of some efficiencies we can see,” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said Wednesday. “We want race fans back at the track, right? We want race fans to see qualifying and practice. We also know that as we look forward to 2021, there's still an unknown.
“The race teams have asked us, and we've worked closely with them, it's worked for us and our television partners, to be as efficient as we can in 2021 on our journey to the Next Gen car. What you'll see us do is a combination in terms of what we're going to deliver for our fans. At any of the new tracks, new configurations, we will have practice and qualifying. If you look at Daytona 500, Bristol dirt, the Coke 600, Nashville, [Circuit of the Americas], Road America, Indianapolis, then Phoenix, those will all be kind of your typical practice, qualifying. The others we're going to take advantage of what we learned during COVID.”
The races listed by O’Donnell above are either marquee races like Daytona, the 600, or the title race at Phoenix or new layouts and tracks. Keeping practice and qualifying at the new venues makes sense — and goes against what NASCAR did ahead of the Daytona road course races in August when it told teams to simply line up and race at a track layout they’d never raced at.
Practice and qualifying have long been a traditional part of NASCAR race weekends. But it’s clear that tradition is giving way because of costs. And that giving way may be a sign of just how dire the financial pictures are for Cup Series teams.
Having no practice and qualifying sessions saves teams money to limit crew members and not bring backup cars to the track. Clearly, those cost savings are significant enough to cut pre-race activities at a majority of races.
A lack of qualifying is also a boon for better teams. The starting lineup formula NASCAR uses is weighted in favor of those near the top of the points standings. That’s not a great thing for parity. But if it’s necessary for NASCAR’s teams to get to 2022 in decent financial shape, well, it’s a tradeoff we’ll have to live with.
Why dirt at Bristol?
NASCAR didn’t add any short tracks to its 2021 schedule. The six that were originally on the 2020 schedule — two each at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond — are the six that are on the 2021 schedule.
But the first Bristol race is going to be a lot different. It’s going to be a dirt track race.
Yes, NASCAR and Bristol are going to dump dirt onto the track and Cup Series cars are going to run on a dirt track for the first time since 1970. NASCAR’s modern era started in 1972. It will be the first dirt track race of the modern era.
If you look at where we've been from a capacity standpoint for that event, the track wanted to look at reinventing, what we could do for that weekend, keep some momentum going for the sport,” O’Donnell said. “When we talked to our television partners about that, the number one thing we wanted to see was can we make that happen. We all got together, worked with the race team, said, Let's give this a try.”
A dirt track race in the Cup Series is a fine idea. But putting it at Bristol at the expense of a spring race that’s been entertaining in the last few seasons doesn’t sit well here. Especially when there are only six short track races on the NASCAR schedule.
Bristol is a fun and unique track already. If it wanted to run a dirt track race, the All-Star Race should have come back to the track in 2021 and it could have been tried there. Or NASCAR should have run an exhibition dirt track race somewhere else.
Instead, NASCAR fans are getting a fun and distinguishable race at the expense of an already fun and distinguishable race. Given how monotonous the Cup Series season can be, that’s not a good trade.
Road courses increase by 100 percent
There are now six road course races on the schedule. That’s up from three on the original 2020 schedule
The Cup Series will race at Road America and the Indianapolis road course for the first time and NASCAR will race at the Circuit of the Americas for the first time overall. The move to double the number of road course races on the Cup Series schedule is clearly being done because road course racing has been one of the most reliably entertaining Cup Series products over the last 10 years.
But road course racing has suffered since NASCAR instituted stages in 2017. The two mandatory cautions in each race have taken a lot of strategy variance out of the races. With unpredictable cautions and long laps, road course races are fun because teams try out numerous pit strategies in an attempt to gain track position.
The mandatory cautions have stifled those strategies. The easiest thing NASCAR can do with its newfound pile of road course races is to eliminate stage cautions at them. Each race can still have three stages and points awarded to the top 10 finishers of the top two stages. But with no cautions. Let teams have their strategy options back. The fans will benefit from it too.
The disappearing glory of NASCAR at Indianapolis
What a fall for NASCAR at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The experiment of Cup cars on the Indianapolis oval was brought to an end on Wednesday when the track’s date was shifted to the infield road course.
The Brickyard 400 was immediately one of the biggest races in NASCAR when it debuted on the Cup Series schedule in 1994. That race had a listed attendance of 350,000.
NASCAR might have been lucky to have a seventh of that attendance in 2019.
There are myriad reasons for why NASCAR’s Brickyard experiment ultimately failed. The biggest is, of course, the tire debacle in 2008. NASCAR had to institute six competition cautions during the race because the tires were so unreliable. It was the original stage race.
The listed attendance for that race was 240,000. The next year, attendance was listed at 180,000. It only kept going down from there.
Yeah, stock cars and the Indianapolis oval were never a perfect fit. Indianapolis races started to hinge more on track position as aerodynamic advancements and NASCAR rule changes made it harder and harder for drivers to pass each other. NASCAR even tried to experiment with in-season rules changes at Indianapolis in the mid-2000s. Those weren’t a magic solution either.
Now we’ll see if the road course is the cure to NASCAR’s Indy woes. The Xfinity Series race at the road course earlier this year was fun. But the four-driver battle for the win in the closing laps isn’t going to be replicated every year. Or maybe even ever again. It shouldn’t be the Cup Series standard. Indy doesn’t need to chase super-high expectations for a few years.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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