Ryan: NASCAR needs a Daytona 500 warmup act in South Florida

7 Comments

Why does NASCAR start the Sprint Cup Series season with its version of the Super Bowl?

There are myriad explanations for a question that perpetually arises each winter, but there’s one succinct answer.

It shouldn’t.

That revelation has come into sharper focus through a scheduling change that resulted in an extra weekend between the Super Bowl and the start of Speedweeks in 2014 and ‘15.

There were many years in which the Super Bowl and the run-up to the stock-car equivalent butted against each other – five years ago, NASCAR moved Daytona 500 qualifying to Saturday because of a direct conflict with Super Sunday. Yet the past two years have provided a stark contrast that leads to a glaring conclusion.

On arguably the most lackluster weekend of the year in pro sports – with basketball and hockey in the doldrums, football in its offseason and baseball in pre-spring training lull – NASCAR is missing a chance to dominate the conversation.

This isn’t an indictment of the Daytona 500’s drawing power, nor the suggestion of a waning cachet. The Great American Race will command the widest audience regardless of its spot on the calendar, and last year’s scintillating victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr. – which didn’t seem dampened despite a six-hour rain delay – reaffirmed its stature on the NASCAR schedule.

The placement could be improved, though, and there is precedent for it.

From 1970-81, the season opened in mid-January at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway before heading to Daytona Beach Fla., a month later. Considering the two greatest finishes in Daytona 500 history (’79 and ’76) occurred in that span, it hardly diminished the luster of the crown jewel.

Riverside still had its failings as a season opener. Why start a month earlier at a road course on the other side of the country?

Three decades later, there’s an optimum location that makes as much sense competitively as it does logistically.

Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Just four-and-a-half hours south of Daytona (which should make a turnaround for Speedweeks relatively easy) is a track that has made a deserving case for hosting a second annual Sprint Cup race ever since its 2003 reconfiguration.

Amid a rash of ill-conceived repavings over the past decade, Homestead’s progressively banked surface has become the gold standard for the 1.5-mile layouts that comprise 11 of the season’s 36 races and have been maligned for producing their fair share of processional racing.

There’s no such conundrum at Homestead, whose thrilling 2014 season finale punctuated the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff  It’s a crime the track is allowed to flaunt its considerable action only once a year – and then just before the circuit is mothballed for three months.

A new testing ban exacerbated the lack of buzz during this offseason, which mostly is a good thing. Overworked teams need the rest, and it also helps to have a break from incessantly flogging the marketing and promotion of Sprint Cup stars who are competing for 10 months annually.

But Thursday’s Daytona 500 Media Day will underscore the downside of a preseason with virtually no on-track activity. Though a bevy of rules changes (causing lower horsepower and downforce) offer much to discuss, the interviews figure to be an echo chamber of last month’s preseason Media Tour, where stars already were asked the same questions they will face Thursday.

Imagine if they were analyzing their results from Homestead, and what that portends for the rest of the season – particularly in the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

Racing a week earlier at Homestead adds another championship dimension to the Daytona 500. If a team mightily struggles in South Florida and is concerned about its speedway prospects, the restrictor-plate roulette wheel of Daytona suddenly promises the relief of a golden ticket to the Chase.

Bookending the schedule at Homestead will present some scheduling hassles (namely, would a race need to be dropped for the new opener), but they are outweighed by the benefits. This is the ideal way to tie the beginning and end of the season together in a Florida-shaped bow.

Dropping the green flag before Daytona won’t make NASCAR’s most iconic event any less super. It’ll make it more special.