The White Zone: Thoughts on 2020 schedule

On Tuesday, NASCAR announced the 2020 schedule for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It’s the biggest schedule realignment in over a decade. After sleeping on it overnight, I have some thoughts on the matter.

Championship race moves to Phoenix

I’ve heard people call for the championship race to rotate among different venues for years, but to ISM (Phoenix) Raceway?

Were people really clamoring for this? Was there really a major push from fans to move the championship race to Phoenix? I don’t know. I’ve heard more people argue that it should go to Talladega Superspeedway.

Furthermore, why move it from Homestead-Miami Speedway? It’s the best mile and a half track on the schedule and does an awesome job as the host of the championship race.

NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said as much during the NASCAR teleconference on Tuesday.

He did, however, note that running the same tracks year after year might favor some drivers more than others. Which doesn’t make sense, when you compare the number of lead changes at Phoenix (in the fall) and Homestead.

It’s also worth noting that Homestead has produced different winners since 2010. At Phoenix, Kyle Busch rides a two-race win streak.

This isn’t a knock against Phoenix. I’ve never worked a race there, but I’m told by colleagues of mine that it’s a Grade-A sports facility, thanks to the recent 175-million dollar renovation.

But the racing at Phoenix tends to be hit and miss, and the recent race a few weeks back doesn’t inspire optimism.

If this is just a one year thing, and the title race rotates among venues every year, I can live with this. Although O’Donnell gave a conflicting answer to that.

“Yeah, I think our hope would be to stay there for a little while,” he said. “I can’t say how long. I think with any venue, you want to see it have a chance and grow a little bit, see how that works. We’ll certainly take a look at it as we look at 2021 and beyond, see what’s on the table in terms of venues.

“But this wasn’t a decision we said, ‘Hey, let’s go there for a year and rotate it.’ Our intent is to stay for a few years and see how we net out.”

Bristol moving into the playoffs

In terms of NASCAR, this isn’t really an Earth-shattering move. In terms of the state of Tennessee, however, this is major.

Bristol Motor Speedway moves from its traditional August date to Sept. 19, which puts it on the same date as a home game at Neyland Stadium for the Tennessee Volunteers.

In regards as to whether Bristol requested this, according to Becky Cox of Bristol Motor Speedway (she’s one of their main PR people), it was a “collaborative process with NASCAR stakeholders (teams, tracks, TV partners) while incorporating NASCAR fan feedback.”

Roughly a 90-minute drive from Bristol, Knoxville, Tennesse is both a major ticket market for the track and a lodging area for fans going to Bristol who don’t want to pay the hiked up prices for hotels in the Tri-Cities area.

Moving this race into football season complicates this immensely.

For you non-Tennessee natives and/or residents, Volunteer football trumps all in this state. While Knoxville is a major NASCAR market, when talking about TV ratings, Volunteer football comes first in this city.

Even though the Vols are at their nadir, in terms of football performance, they still averaged close to 93,000 fans for every game in 2018 (the lowest attendance was 86,753).

Given the aforementioned aspect of Knoxville being a major NASCAR TV market, I’m willing to bet that there’s a large crossover of NASCAR/Volunteer football fans in this city. By moving it to September, that cuts into the number of people in Knoxville, as well as Tennessee, who’ll buy tickets to Bristol. Not to mention that it cuts down on the number of hotel rooms available in Knoxville for race fans.

Granted, the game in question on Sept. 19 is against a Division I FCS school (Furman), but 95,855 fans showed up to the Vols matchup against FCS team ETSU in 2018. That probably had more to do with it being the home opener for the Vols that season, but the point is that Volunteer football towers over all in Tennessee. And given the well publicized sagging attendance at Bristol, they aren’t doing themselves any favors with this move.

But they must’ve had more fans requesting this move than I thought.

Daytona moves off Independence Day weekend

As a bit of a traditionalist, this one kind of stings.

Since Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, it’s always been a staple of Independence Day weekend. Starting in 2020, however, it moves from that to the regular season finale.

NASCAR didn’t make this decision lightly, according to O’Donnell. They wouldn’t have moved it from Independence Day weekend if it was to a point other than the end of the regular season. Drivers and teams told NASCAR that the regular season should begin and end in Daytona.

“Everyone felt Daytona belonged there and that track deserved to potentially be in that date,” O’Donnell said. “That kind of started the thinking.”

Overall, I’m fine with this.

Rain has plagued this race for years. It’s also very hot in Florida this time of year. Also, we don’t run it on Independence Day anymore, and this race hasn’t fallen on Independence Day since 2009.

I also love the idea of a restrictor plate race deciding who ultimately makes the Playoffs, even if plate racing now is more akin to a game of Russian roulette than actual racing.

With that said, however, I don’t understand moving Indianapolis Motor Speedway back into July, when track president J. Douglas Boles cited heat as a major reason for wanting a date in September.

It also doesn’t help that Indy has had well-publicized attendance woes for nearly the last decade.

We’ll have to see how that one pans out.

And the rest

As for the rest of the changes, I don’t really have that strong of an opinion on them. I like that Richmond Raceway’s first race is going back to Sunday afternoon and I’m intrigued by the prospect of a Cup Series double-header at Pocono Raceway, but that’s about it. I’m indifferent to Martinsville Speedway getting a night race and Kansas Speedway going from night to day.

Overall, NASCAR hit this out of the park. They did great with these changes to a schedule that had been stagnant for over a decade now.

Of course, these changes will be for naught if massive changes in 2021 don’t happen as well.

For now, however, let’s just see how this goes.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

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