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

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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.

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Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas: Start time, TV channel

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The second round of the Cup playoffs begins with the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 1.5-mile track kicks off the Round of 12. Winning the race and stage points are a premium for playoff drivers before the races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol, starts from the pole.

Here is all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis at 7:07 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at Noon. Drivers report to their cars at 6:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Sierra Black at 7:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to win at Bristol and claim his ninth win of the season.

LAST POINTS RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Joey Logano beat Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win but without hometown fans

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report