texas motor speedway

Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

4 Comments

For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

 and on Facebook

NASCAR examining what to do about teams failing inspection

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
6 Comments

NASCAR is looking into what else it should do after more than a fourth of the field failed make a qualifying attempt last weekend at Kansas Speedway because teams could not pass inspection, a senior NASCAR official told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Eleven cars failed to get through inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt at Kansas. Among those who did not make a qualifying attempt were Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Erik Jones and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Last month at Texas Motor Speedway, nine cars did not make a qualifying attempt because they could not pass inspection.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told “The Morning Drive’’ on Monday that NASCAR will examine the issue.

“It’s not a great situation for the competitors,’’ he said. “It’s certainly not a great situation for us or the fans or the broadcast partners. We know we can’t keep having those situations come up.

“Right now the rear steer of the race cars is a real hot topic, is a real performance metric for the teams. We have a rear-end spec and a tolerance that rear-end housing can be put in the car. More often than not what we’re seeing when people struggle, they’re building the rear end housing to the tolerance and then they have no room to actually move it around in the car and make it meet the numbers.

“It’s a bit of a learning process. We certainly have some meetings this week on how we kind of move forward. I’m not sure if we have more penalties. Right now it’s not good for anybody but there’s not a lot of consequence to it, other than the teams not getting out there.’’

Asked about how some competitors claim they pass the Laser Inspection on one attempt but don’t pass it another time, Miller told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio:

“It’s hard to explain, it would take an hour to kind of go through all the technical things about the process, but it is conceivable if they’re .01 of a degree to the good that the next time they’ll be .01 of a degree outside of the good.

“Every piece of measurement equipment has a tolerance that it can work in and they seem to think that this thing should be absolute when no measuring equipment is absolute. It’s just one of those things. They’re trying to get to the edge. We’re trying to make sure we have a level playing field.’’

 and on Facebook

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup season could lead to greater ticket sales

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that he will retire from the NASCAR Cup Series after this season could help minimize attendance declines that have become common at tracks.

Asked about the impact Earnhardt could have in the final 28 races of the season, Marcus Smith, chief executive officer and president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., likened Earnhardt to another famous athlete.

“Dale Jr.’s announcement yesterday is significant, it’s similar to when Michael Jordan decided it was time for him to retire from basketball,’’ Smith said Wednesday in a conference call with investor analysts. “The opportunity for fans to see Dale Jr. race one more time is certainly special and something we expect will be inspiring to a lot of fans to come to races.’’

Speedway Motorsports Inc. reported that admissions revenue was down 4.5 percent in the first quarter this year compared to the same time last season. The first quarter covered race weekends for Atlanta and Las Vegas. SMI reported that attendance at Atlanta was “up a little bit” and attendance at Las Vegas was “down a little bit” but did not provide numbers.

Earnhardt will be the fourth major NASCAR driver to leave the Cup series since last year Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart ran their final races last season. Carl Edwards announced before the season that he would not race this year.

International Speedway Corp., which owns tracks such as Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Homestead-Miami Speedway, cited the absence of Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt (when he missed the last 18 races of last year) as impacting admission revenue last season.

ISC reported its fourth-quarter admissions revenue was down 9.3 percent last year from the previous season. The company hosted Cup races at Darlington, Richmond, Chicagoland, Kansas, Talladega, Martinsville, Phoenix and Homestead during that quarter.

“The impact of Jeff Gordon’s retirement was underestimated, which was compounded with Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. missing races throughout the season,’’ said John Saunders, ISC president, in January about one of the reasons for the decline.

Earnhardt’s announcement that this will be his last Cup series already has some fans purchasing or looking to purchase tickets.

Richmond International Raceway reported an increase in interest for this weekend’s race after Earnhardt’s announcement. Richmond also is selling tickets to its fall race weekend. Earnhardt is scheduled to compete in both the Xfinity and Cup races there Sept. 8-9.

The series heads to Talladega next weekend and Grant Lynch, chairman of Talladega Superspeedway, anticipates more Earnhardt fans showing up.

“If you’re going to go see him one more time, why wouldn’t you go to the track where he runs the best,’’ Lynch said. “We think that’s the a positive for Talladega. He’s always been great at Talladega. It’s an Earnhardt track. I hope folks will take the attitude that ‘Wow, I’ll get two more chances to see him,’ see him next weekend and come see us again in October.’’

The greatest demands for tickets likely will come for races at the end of the season.

Earnhardt’s final Cup race will be Nov. 19 at Homestead. The track is selling three-day weekend packages. Deposits for single-day tickets, which go on sale May 5, are being taken. That race sold out last year.

The week before Homestead, the series races at Phoenix Raceway. The track is in the renewal process for the Nov. 12 race with fall race ticket holders. The track is selling tickets to its new Club 64 section above Turn 1 now. Grandstand tickets and camping go on sale June 2.

The week before Phoenix, the series races at Texas Motor Speedway. The track is selling weekend ticket packages only at this point. The track will sell individual tickets to its fall Cup race in June. A date has yet to be determined but it will come after the June 10 IndyCar race there.

 and on Facebook

Good news, race fans: few conflicts with NFL games during 2017 NASCAR playoffs

Getty Images
1 Comment

For the most part, NASCAR and the NFL won’t butt heads in the same cities too much when it comes to the 10 NASCAR Cup playoff weekends this year.

The NFL released its 2017 regular season schedule Thursday night, and with a few exceptions, racetracks in or near NFL teams are fairly in the clear when it comes to going head-to-head against their gridiron counterparts.

The most notable matchup will come on Sunday, November 5, a date Texas Motor Speedway boss Eddie Gossage is probably cursing about now.

While TMS’s NASCAR race begins at 2 p.m. ET that day, about 2 ½ hours and 30 miles down the road in Arlington, Texas, America’s Team – the Dallas Cowboys – will play host to the Kansas City Chiefs.

One other conflict of note – more so because of sentimental reasons – is September 24, when the New England Patriots host the Houston Texans, while New Hampshire Motor Speedway will host its last fall race (its race date is being moved to Las Vegas starting next season).

There’s also October 1, when Dover International Speedway hosts the third race of the playoffs. And while the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins are on the road, the Baltimore Ravens have a big game against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here’s how NASCAR stacks up against the NFL during the 10-week NASCAR Cup playoffs:

Sept. 17 — Playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway – no conflict as Chicago Bears play at Tampa Bay.

Sept. 24 — New Hampshire Motor Speedway – moderate conflict – New England Patriots host the Houston Texans about 110 miles away. However, Pats fans who are also NASCAR fans may decide to skip the game to attend what will be the last fall race at NHMS for sentimental reasons.

Oct. 1 — Dover International Speedway – minor conflict – Baltimore Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers 90 miles away. However, other nearby teams play on the road: Philadelphia Eagles play at Los Angeles Chargers and the Washington Redskins play at the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 2 (Monday Night Football).

Oct. 8 — Charlotte Motor Speedway – no conflict – Carolina Panthers play at Detroit Lions

Oct. 15 — Talladega Superspeedway – minor conflict – Atlanta Falcons host the Miami Dolphins, but that’s about 110 miles and two hours away.

Oct. 22 — Kansas Speedway – no conflict – Kansas City Chiefs play at Oakland Raiders on October 19 (Thursday Night Football).

Oct. 29 — Martinsville Speedway – no conflict – (Carolina Panthers are at New York Jets, but Washington Redskins host Dallas Cowboys four hours and nearly 300 miles away).

Nov. 5 — Texas Motor Speedway – MAJOR conflict – NASCAR race starts at 2 p.m. ET, while Dallas Cowboys host the Kansas City Chiefs at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, at 4:30 p.m. ET (and 30 miles from TMS).

Nov. 12 — Phoenix Raceway – no conflict – the Phoenix Cardinals host the Seattle Seahawks, but that game will be held on November 9 (Thursday Night Football).

Nov. 19 — Homestead Miami Speedway – no conflict – the Dolphins enjoy a bye week (don’t be surprised if several players wind up at the NASCAR race).

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NASCAR Stock Market: Who’s up and who’s down from last year

1 Comment

No Cup driver has had a better turnaround in the last year than Clint Bowyer.

The Stewart-Haas racer is one of five who are 10 or more spots better in the points than they were a year ago. Bowyer, who is ninth in the standings, is 23 spots better than he was at this time last year.

The change is not a surprise. Bowyer was with HScott Motorsports, which ceased operations after last year, and now is with one of the sport’s elite teams.

“There is nothing in this sport at this level that comes easy,’’ Bowyer said earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway. “It doesn’t matter the racetrack or circumstances, it is always hard because there is always the next guy working every bit as hard to accomplish the same goal. That being said, I knew it would be a positive move.’’

Bowyer has two top-10 finishes, which is one shy his total last season. He also has five top-15 finishes in the first seven Cup races of the season.

On the opposite side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 20th in points, 14 spots worse than he was at this time a year ago. He is coming off a season-best fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s challenge, in part, has been coming back after missing the last 18 races of last season because of issues related to a concussion.

“I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it’s nice,’’ he said after the Texas race. “I know our fans are really pulling for us. 

Here’s a look at the drivers who have gained the most spots in the points since this time a year ago and the drivers who have fallen the most in the same time.

MOST POSITIONS GAINED

23 — Clint Bowyer (9th in standings this year)

17 — Kyle Larson (1st)

14 — Ryan Blaney (6th)

12 — Chase Elliott (2nd)

11 — Trevor Bayne (12th)

9 — Chris Buescher (27th)

8 — Martin Truex Jr. (3rd)

6 — Ryan Newman (13th)

6 — Cole Whitt (31st)

5 — Brad Keselowski (4th)

5 — Jamie McMurray (8th)

5 — Michael McDowell (28th)

MOST POSITIONS LOST

14 — Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th in standings this year)

11 — Austin Dillon (21st)

10 — Matt Kenseth (22nd)

10 — AJ Allmendinger (25th)

9 — Jimmie Johnson (11th)

8 — Kurt Busch (15th)

8 — Denny Hamlin (16th)

7 — Kevin Harvick (10th)

6 — Kyle Busch (7th)

5 — Paul Menard (26th)

5 — Danica Patrick (29th)

 and on Facebook