ATW: The Times, They Are a Changin’

Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.” – Bob Dylan, “The Times, They Are a-Changin'”

One part innovation. Another part desperation.

One end full of promise. The other filled of uncertainty.

Such was the sight on Tuesday evening, as NASCAR rolled out the 2018 schedules for each of its national series.

For the first time in many years, the schedule is rife with change, albeit without the addition of any new facilities to the three tours. (Note: The complete schedules can be found at the bottom of the article.)

The Daytona 500 is back to its historical date. Richmond returns to night racing.

The term ‘roval’ now joins ‘encumbered’ and ‘overtime’ as additions to NASCAR canon, the Brickyard’s set for increased importance as the final race of the regular season and Las Vegas makes out as the luckiest of the group in replacing Chicago with a second race in the playoffs.

Each change is small on its own, but the sheer amount of adjustments make the collective whole difficult to dissect.

Let’s break each change down one-by-one, from biggest to smallest.

1) Running on the Roval

It was the sport’s worst-kept secret, but that doesn’t make it any less intriguing.

The first major announcement in the schedule is that Charlotte Motor Speedway’s fall playoff race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will be contested not on the traditional 1.5-mile oval, but the unique, 2.42-mile ‘roval’, a combination road course/oval track.

Let’s get ready to roval. (Photo: Charlotte Motor Speedway)

The news of a potential race on the track’s infield course first arrived over the early months of the season when road-course ace A.J. Allmendinger was recorded testing a Cup series car on the track. Naturally, it was also Allmendinger who graced the track’s introductory video to the roval.

In the hours following the schedule release, the roval’s been among the schedule’s most praised changes.

The cheers aren’t without merit. This move checks off  a lot of boxes on fans’ wish lists.

Not only does the change add another road-course to the season – it also falls inside of the 10-race playoff, at the end of the first stage, no less. The unique track layout promises to make the race unique, and the added drama of a stage cutoff in the playoffs will add intensity and keep any series regulars from sandbagging.

The move isn’t perfect. A true road course, such as Road America or Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course – each of which are on the XFINITY Series schedule – would likely have made for a more suitable race weekend. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we knew that was never going to happen under the current track agreements that guarantee each facility’s ownership a race through 2020.

No, it isn’t perfect at all. But this change serves as NASCAR’s strongest recent example to innovation and compromise in regards to the schedule, and both they and Charlotte Motor Speedway deserve credit for having the courage to go through with it.

2) Battle at the Brickyard

Remember when I led with a line about desperation?

This is why.

In an effort to add drama and life to what’s been a torrid affair in recent years, NASCAR is moving their annual trip to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Sept., as the last race weekend before the start of the playoffs.

In doing so, Indy will replace Richmond International Raceway as the final race of the regular season, where the year’s championship contenders are decided.

No change has to the racing’s been able to save the Brickyard. What about a change of date? (Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Color me worried.

The Brickyard 400 (or whatever they choose to call it nowadays) has come under intense scrutiny for the better part of a decade now. Hampered by a devastating tire debacle in 2008, and further hindered by extreme summer heat, the addition of new tracks in close proximity (Chicagoland, Kentucky) and – let’s face it – a subpar on-track product, what was once one of NASCAR’s biggest races has quickly become arguably it’s grandest disappointment.

While the Indianapolis 500’s audience has slowly rebuilt over the recent years, NASCAR’s annual trip to the Hoosier state has been met with disdain from the bulk of the motorsports world.

For a time, the tradition of one of the world’s oldest and best racetracks was enough to carry fans to the Speedway, Indiana facility in droves. But in the modern day, the race has seen ever-decreasing attendance.

Some attempts have been made to bolster the weekend. The XFINITY Series and IMSA were added as part of a “Super Weekend” in 2012, but the move failed to add excitement, with IMSA quickly abandoning the weekend schedule. NASCAR has tried to add value to XFINITY by making Indy a Dash 4 Cash race, which even included heat races last season, and the sanctioning body has tried multiple packages from high drag to this summer’s planned restrictor plate attempt.

Ultimately, nothing has worked, at least not yet.

NASCAR hopes a change in date will change that.

In theory, the move should pay off in a few areas. Running in mid-Sept. should allow for slightly cooler temperatures across the Midwest when NASCAR rolls into town. For better or worse, the Brickyard hosting the last race before the playoffs should also allow for increased strategy amongst the garage as teams try to gather clean air and steal a late postseason bid.

Sadly, that’s where the positive seem to end on this move. And there are a few negatives.

This move takes the regular season finale away from Richmond – a short track where drivers raced tightly together and could largely control their own destiny.

Richmond wasn’t typically the strongest race of the season, but it was often above-average and certainly intriguing as drivers tried to maneuver their way into the playoffs. The race didn’t always add to the sport’s momentum, but it rarely hurt it.

The same can’t necessarily be said for Indianapolis.

If the race is filled with unique strategy and intrigue, it could prove worth the move. But if the final race before the postseason turns into a strung out, overtake-free affair then it’s difficult to see the paddock leaving this weekend solely focused on the playoffs and not on the poor attendance and substandard racing.

The move also separates Indy from the week of the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, which could keep some fans (or drivers) from attending both races.

However, it does offer a unique opportunity…

3) The Triple

A trip to Darlington Raceway with up to $1 million potentially on the line? Sign me up. (Photo: Jeff Curry/NASCAR via Getty Images)

With Indy’s move to Sept., the final three races of the regular season are among the biggest of the entire season.

Starting in 2018, the Monster Energy Series field will wrap up their playoff pursuit with the Bristol Night Race, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400.

Each of the above races are marquee events, the sort of race that drivers strive to add to their hall of fame resumes.

NASCAR should take advantage of that.

This stretch deserves a serious marketing push and, if possible, an incentive for those that can conquer multiple events in one season. I propose adding a $500,000 incentive for any who can win two of the three events in a single year, with a $1 million bonus for any that can make a legendary run and win all three races – call it the Monster Energy Million Dollar Challenge, or ‘Monster Million’ for short.

4) Playoff Swap

Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS) is set to become the first venue to host two tripleheader weekends with all three of NASCAR’s national series, and it’s gaining a playoff weekend in the process.

LVMS will now play host to the playoff-opening race weekend in Sept., following the three races listed above and replacing Chicagoland Speedway, which moves to late June/early July.

In terms of on-track product, this move pays few dividends – it’s just a swap of intermediate ovals. However, the West Coast push and scenic start to the playoffs that Vegas offers should prove worth the addition so long as fans show up and pack the grandstands.

One can only assume the playoff weekend will be well attended for Vegas. The true question in this move is whether fans will continue to show up for the spring weekend as well.

5) Date Changes

There are a host of date swaps throughout the schedule.

Chicagoland Speedway will play host to a playoff race no longer after 2017. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

  • As mentioned above, Chicago will move from the playoffs to the summer, just before NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway for their traditional July date. They’re among the biggest losers in the change, faced with the difficulty of selling a non-playoff race within a month of events at the nearby Michigan International Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
  • As previously confirmed, New Hampshire Motor Speedway loses one of its dates altogether in favor of Las Vegas. The reduction to one race is a sad outcome for the northeast, but hopefully one the track will be able to survive. It isn’t always the most exciting, but NHMS’ flat, one-mile oval is unique, and deserves to stay on the Cup Series schedule.
  • The season-opening Daytona 500 will return to its traditional President’s Day weekend on Feb. 18, with Speedweeks starting one weekend earlier on Feb. 11,  when the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying are contested on the same day. This dynamic worked well with a rain-delayed Clash this past February, and both changes to Speedweeks should serve the sport reasonably well.
  • Despite their loss of the regular season finale, Richmond gains in the form of a playoff race, replacing NHMS with the second race in the postseason. The track will also return to holding both races at night. The spring race going back under the lights is unfortunate, because the daytime and hotter track lend themselves to noticeably better racing. However, fans failed to show up for the event in the daytime this spring (fair or not), so the move is understandable.
  • Dover International Speedway moves one week back in the rotation, swapping with Charlotte and becoming the first race of the Round of 12. This move should serve the facility well, with the ‘Monster Mile’ offering intense racing for all remaining playoff contenders instead of just the few drivers on the bubble.
  • The Truck Series wins big, with a dramatic regular season finale at Bristol followed by playoff races at the tricky Canadian Tire Motorsports Park

Wrap Up

There are a host of changes coming to NASCAR’s schedule next season, even if the races remain at the same facilities. A few of the moves are questionable, but for the most part they line up with the interests expressed by fans over the better part of the last decade.

Will every move pay off? It remains to be seen.

But at least for once there’s widespread change to the schedule to observe in the first place.

Adding a bit of fluidity to the schedule isn’t a bad thing. It keeps the series moving, as opposed to sinking like a stone.

After all – the times, they are a-changin’. 

Schedules

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Date                 Site

2/11                  Daytona International Speedway (Clash / Daytona 500 Qualifying)

2/15                  Daytona International Speedway (Duel)

2/18                  Daytona 500

2/25                  Atlanta Motor Speedway

3/4                    Las Vegas Motor Speedway

3/11                  Phoenix International Raceway

3/18                  Auto Club Speedway

3/25                  Martinsville Speedway

4/8                    Texas Motor Speedway

4/15                  Bristol Motor Speedway

4/21                  Richmond International Raceway

4/29                  Talladega Superspeedway

5/6                    Dover International Speedway

5/12                  Kansas Speedway

5/19                  Charlotte Motor Speedway (Monster Energy All-Star Race)

5/27                  Charlotte Motor Speedway

6/3                    Pocono Raceway

6/10                  Michigan International Speedway

6/24                  Sonoma Raceway

7/1                    Chicagoland Speedway

7/7                    Daytona International Speedway

7/14                  Kentucky Speedway

7/22                  New Hampshire Motor Speedway

7/29                  Pocono Raceway

8/5                    Watkins Glen International

8/12                  Michigan International Speedway

8/18                  Bristol Motor Speedway

9/2                    Darlington Raceway

9/9                    Indianapolis Motor Speedway

9/16                  Las Vegas Motor Speedway

9/22                  Richmond International Raceway

9/30                  Charlotte Motor Speedway

10/7                  Dover International Speedway

10/14                Talladega Superspeedway

10/21                Kansas Speedway

10/28                Martinsville Speedway

11/4                  Texas Motor Speedway

11/11                Phoenix International Raceway

11/18                Homestead-Miami Speedway

 

NASCAR XFINITY SERIES

Date                 Site

2/17                  Daytona International Speedway

2/24                  Atlanta Motor Speedway

3/3                    Las Vegas Motor Speedway

3/10                  Phoenix International Raceway

3/17                  Auto Club Speedway

4/7                    Texas Motor Speedway

4/14                  Bristol Motor Speedway

4/20                  Richmond International Raceway

4/28                  Talladega Superspeedway

5/5                    Dover International Speedway

5/26                  Charlotte Motor Speedway

6/2                    Pocono Raceway

6/9                    Michigan International Speedway

6/17                  Iowa Speedway

6/30                  Chicagoland Speedway

7/6                    Daytona International Speedway

7/13                  Kentucky Speedway

7/21                  New Hampshire Motor Speedway

7/28                  Iowa Speedway

8/4                    Watkins Glen International

8/11                  Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course

8/17                  Bristol Motor Speedway

8/25                  Road America

9/1                    Darlington Raceway

9/8                    Indianapolis Motor Speedway

9/15                  Las Vegas Motor Speedway

9/21                  Richmond International Raceway

9/29                  Charlotte Motor Speedway

10/6                  Dover International Speedway

10/20                Kansas Speedway

11/3                  Texas Motor Speedway

11/10                Phoenix International Raceway

11/17                Homestead-Miami Speedway

 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Date                 Site

2/16                  Daytona International Speedway

2/24                  Atlanta Motor Speedway

3/2                    Las Vegas Motor Speedway

3/24                  Martinsville Speedway

5/4                    Dover International Speedway

5/11                  Kansas Speedway

5/18                  Charlotte Motor Speedway

6/8                    Texas Motor Speedway

6/16                  Iowa Speedway

6/23                  Gateway Motorsports Park

6/29                  Chicagoland Speedway

7/12                  Kentucky Speedway

7/18                  Eldora Speedway

7/28                  Pocono Raceway

8/11                  Michigan International Speedway

8/15                  Bristol Motor Speedway

8/26                  Canadian Tire Motorsport Park

9/14                  Las Vegas Motor Speedway

10/13                Talladega Superspeedway

10/27                Martinsville Speedway

11/2                  Texas Motor Speedway

11/9                  Phoenix International Raceway

11/16                Homestead-Miami Speedway

 

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