INDIANAPOLIS — When NASCAR revealed its 2021 Cup schedule last September with a dirt track, three more road course races and an additional oval included, the changes were described by some as dynamic, monumental and huge.
Sunday’s race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course marked the last of those major changes to the schedule. The remaining 12 races, including all 10 playoff races, are at venues that have hosted Cup events previously.
So what has this sport seen with its race on the dirt at Bristol and events at Circuit of the Americas, Road America, the Indy road course and Nashville Superspeedway?
Some memorable moments, for sure, but many learning experiences.
Sunday’s race at Indy provided another such example. The carnage at the end of the race because of the curb issue in Turn 6 and the fact that a car under penalty spun the leader out coming to the white flag are matters NASCAR must prevent from happening again.
“These cars and curbs and all that stuff just doesn’t go together,” said Denny Hamlin, who lost a chance to win at Indy after Chase Briscoe spun him out of the lead. “We’re trying to force sports car racing into these fans.
“Although the finish was a crash-fest, I’m sure everyone will love it. It’s just stupid. It’s a complete circus at the end of the race. You just roll the dice and hope you don’t get crashed.”
It seemed as if there was something at most of these new events that could be improved for next year.
“A lot of lessons,” reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott told NBC Sports on Monday.
The dirt race at Bristol — the first Cup dirt event since 1970 — faced several issues.
Excessive tire wear in practice forced officials to add competition cautions, extend stage lengths and give teams an extra set of tires for the race.
Both Cup and Truck races were moved to Monday because of rain. There was no way either series could run on a wet track without mud caking the windshields and causing a safety issue.
That remains a question for next year: How to allow those series to race on a muddy track?
NASCAR’s debut at Circuit of the Americas was highly anticipated. The road course in Austin, Texas, provided a new venue for NASCAR, and the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series competed on a Formula One track.
The weekend turned when heavy rain forced NASCAR to cut short the Cup race. That came after multiple wrecks because drivers could not see due to the spray of water coming from vehicles ahead. Kevin Harvick called racing in the rain there the “most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car.”
A day later, three Cup teams took part in a previously scheduled test at Richmond Raceway to see if there was a way for Cup cars to run in wet conditions on a short track. Focus was put on trying to find a way to limit the spray. It doesn’t appear NASCAR is ready to run in wet conditions on a short track at this time.
At Road America, two incidents in qualifying caused full-course cautions as others were making their qualifying attempt. Elliott was among those who had his qualifying laps nullified. When the second caution ended, there wasn’t enough time in the session to make a third attempt and he had to start toward the back.
Elliott responded by winning that race in a spirited drive. He delivered a second burnout to fans on the course after they cheered for him to do so.
Also during that race, Hamlin’s aggressive driving against Kyle Larson raised the intensity of their duel for the regular-season championship. It wasn’t dirty. Just good, hard racing.
Just as memorable was the large crowd at Road America throughout the weekend, energizing the event.
“The crowd seemed to really enjoy their time all weekend,, no matter who won (the weekend’s races),” Elliott said. “There was a great crowd there.”
That electricity also was felt at Nashville Superspeedway, which had about 38,000 fans in its sold-out stands. A disappointment was that the start of the race was delayed about 10 minutes to give fans, stuck in traffic, additional time to get to the facility.
“Nashville is a great example, too, with all the people and the excitement,” Elliott said of a highlight of the new venues. “Candidly, I’m disappointed with how unprepared we were for traffic. I would be upset if I was a fan going to that event and sitting in traffic for that period of time.”
Nashville officials have pledged to make changes for next year’s event.
Among other highlights at the new Cup venues this year:
- Austin Cindric’s spellbinding run to lead the first four laps of the race at Circuit of the Americas on slick tires despite wet conditions.
- Daniel Suarez’s fourth-place finish on the dirt at Bristol was remarkable considering he had not had any dirt experience until earlier that week.
- AJ Allmendinger’s win at Indy for Kaulig Racing, which is running a partial Cup schedule, showed how unpredictable NASCAR races can be.
Such moments makes those events worthwhile, but NASCAR needs to avoid a repeat of the issues at those tracks to make fans want to see those races next year and beyond.
MORE OR LESS ROAD COURSE RACING?
Sunday’s race was the sixth of seven road course races this season for Cup. For some drivers, road course fatigue is setting in.
“It’s a little bit too much,” Chris Buescher said before Sunday’s race at Indy. “I’m a road course fan, so I enjoy doing it four or five times a year, but this is enough and maybe a little bit on the high side for my liking.
“I feel like the majority of drivers would say the same thing. I know we’ve got a handful of people that are really good on road courses and probably would like to run more, but I’m a short track racer by trade. That’s what I grew up doing, and that’s what I want to do more of.”
Said William Byron on if he has road course fatigue this year: “I don’t feel like we need more of them. I think seven is plenty.
“I think the NextGen car is going to make the (road) courses better as a driver. They might be a little more spread out because they’re going to be easier to drive.
“I feel like the cars right now are really hard to drive. There is a lot of brake lock-up. The cars don’t stop well. They don’t turn well. So, you see a lot of accidents.
“Next year, you might see less of that because the car is going to be easier to brake and shift and you won’t have as many mechanical issues.”
Daniel Suarez can see more road courses being added to future Cup schedules.
“I love road course racing,” he said before Sunday’s race at Indy. “That’s what I grew up doing in go-karts. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day, we have 10 road course racetracks on the schedule and 25 ovals. It’s a lot of fun. Everyone enjoys it.”
Suarez saw some of that excitement during the NTT IndyCar Series weekend in Nashville earlier this month. Suarez ran in the Trans Am TA2 race with car owner Justin Marks the day before the IndyCar race through the city’s streets.
“I don’t think it could have been any better from my perspective,” Suarez said of the event’s atmosphere. “The fans were amazing. The amount of fans, every single day … was crazy. Lot of NASCAR fans. A lot of people were asking for pictures. I was very, very surprised by that. I really hope NASCAR gives a street course a chance because it was an amazing event.”
With talk of NASCAR looking at a possible street course race in the future, Suarez might get his wish.
THINKING OF THE POSSIBILITIES
Esteemed motorsports journalist Robin Miller wrote Monday at RACER.com that the NTT IndyCar Series had to find a way to get Kyle Larson a ride in next year’s Indianapolis 500.
Miller suggested that Larson’s Cup car owner, Rick Hendrick, put together the deal. If not, Larson could possibly run with Roger Penske’s team or Ed Carpenter Racing. Both field Chevrolets in that series.
Larson’s adventures on dirt are leading to a year not seen in motorsports in decades.
The Coca-Cola 600 is among six NASCAR Cup races he’s won this year (including the All-Star Race). He’s also the points leader.
His resume this season also includes winning the Chili Bowl Nationals midget car race in January and the Knoxville Nationals sprint car race last weekend. Less than 24 hours after his Knoxville victory, he was in position to win the Cup race on the Indy road course until the chaotic ending.
“I’ve always wanted to be known as one of – if not the greatest – all-around race car drivers ever,” Larson told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan in June.
Even with wins in the biggest midget car and sprint car races this year, Larson has his sights on other races outside of his NASCAR goals.
“Now that I’ve gotten into the Late Model stuff, the World 100 is next month – that is their Knoxville Nationals and Daytona 500, so I would love to, someday, win that,” Larson said.
“Hopefully, I can get the opportunity to race it down the road even more. This year is unique. They’re making up the World event from last year, so I can run the midweek show, the Thursday night program of it. There’s a lot of late model races: The Dream, the Dirt Track World Championship.
“I don’t even know all the crown jewels since I’m new at it (late model racing). The National Open in sprint cars. The BC39 (at the dirt track inside Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week) in a midget will be up there with Belleville and the Chili Bowl. There’s a lot of big ones out there.”
For those who question if Larson could spread himself too thin and cause his NASCAR results to suffer, don’t count on it.
“I don’t go there (to the Knoxville Nationals) with any added pressure on myself,” Larson said before Sunday’s Cup race at Indy. “If you’re going to talk about pressure, I think more of it comes when I’m back here (in NASCAR). I need to show that I’m still fully committed to this.
“I think practicing as good as we did (Saturday) and hopefully having a good qualifying run (Larson started fourth) and then a good race this afternoon (he finished third), I think that kind of verifies (that with) everything I’m doing and staying busy with, NASCAR still is the top of my priority list.”
Should there be a way to get Larson to the Indy 500 next year, he could be joined by seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is running a partial IndyCar schedule but has made overtures of running in next year’s Indy 500. He is expected to test at Texas Motor Speedway later this month.
Now, only if Kyle Busch, who has expressed interest in competing in the Indianapolis 500, could get permission to do so. Wouldn’t that be something to see all three of those drivers in the Indy 500?