NASCAR centerpiece: Four simple ways to fix the schedule

Speedway Illustrated

NASCAR’s greatest challenge in recent years has been in trying to expand to new markets without abandoning its established ones.

In one particularly awkward misstep, NASCAR granted a second race date to California Speedway in 2004 – and simultaneously ended a tradition of more than 50 years, the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend. But Labor Day in L.A. was a flop. Now Atlanta has that date, while the Southern 500 returns (at least in name) to Darlington – albeit in May. NASCAR should simply have dropped Darlington’s spring race and kept the Southern 500’s Labor Day tradition intact.

Now, with Kansas Speedway in line for a second date, and Las Vegas clamoring for another as well, NASCAR faces renewed pressure to adjust its 36-race Sprint Cup schedule again. Here are our suggestions.

• Do the math. Of the 22 tracks that host Sprint Cup points events, 14 hold two races a year. That’s too many. Given the growing economic pressures on the sport, running twice a year at so many tracks simply because that’s the way it’s always been done makes no sense.

• Be inclusive. More tracks want Sprint Cup dates than NASCAR has available. Kentucky Speedway recently filed an antitrust suit against NASCAR, alleging a conflict of interest between the sanctioning body and International Speedway Corporation, which owns 12 Sprint Cup tracks, including Daytona. (The suit was dropped when Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns seven Sprint Cup tracks, acquired Kentucky Speedway.) Adding Kentucky (and three other speedways) would bring the number of Cup tracks to 26 – which just happens to be the number of races in the Sprint Cup regular season.

• Redo the math. Each of the 26 Cup tracks would get one regular-season race. Simple.

• Be flexible. So which tracks would get the 10 coveted Chase races in the fall? That’s also simple. First, six tracks would be designated as single-race venues: the two road courses; Indianapolis; and one track from each of the three primary ownership groups (Dover Motorsports, along with ISC and SMI). Those tracks would be ineligible for Chase events. That would leave 20 tracks vying for the 10 Chase events. Divide those 20 tracks into two groups of 10. One group hosts the Chase in odd years, the other hosts it in even years. The NFL and Major League Baseball don’t run the same schedules every year. Baseball rotates its interleague matchups, and football does the same with inter-divisional games. That same approach in racing would create a more interesting schedule for fans and a more equitable arrangement for tracks, with none of the politics that plagues the process now.

Driver Profile: RYAN NEWMAN

WHY HE MATTERS: A top-five at Richmond put him in a Chase spot for the first time this year

WHAT HE SAYS: “If we keep doing this we’ll get what we want.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He could get what he wants at Darlington, where he has five top-fives in 10 Cup starts

NEXT RACE SOUTHERN 500 PRESENTED BY GODADDY.COM Darlington Raceway

THE LOWDOWN We’ll let Kyle Busch, who won the Crown Royal 400 (and Friday’s Nationwide race) summarize Richmond, which produced a record-tying 15 cautions on Saturday: “There was a lot of beating and banging, some smoke flying, some tempers flaring. It’s the action track. That’s why people love it.” Added Busch, who ended a slump with his weekend sweep, “I think we’re heading in the right direction…. [We’re] looking forward to Darlington next week.” And why not? He’s the defending champion at that track.

PAST WINNERS

2008    Kyle Busch

2007    Jeff Gordon

2006    Greg Biffle

2005    Greg Biffle

ABOUT Darlington

TRACK: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.), 1.366-mile paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 367 laps, 501.3 miles

FIRST RACE: 1950

SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Quote of Note

“I think Ryan’s fourth-place run was more impressive than our third-place finish.”

–Tony Stewart, whose new Stewart-Haas team placed both cars in the top five at Richmond

Where to Watch

Saturday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at 7:00 p.m. EST, followed by the race at 7:45.

UP TO SPEED

Taming the Toughest Track

Darlington, a “driver’s track” that’s been on the circuit since 1950, offers a unique opportunity to compare Cup competitors from different eras. Over the years, just 20 drivers have managed to finish in the top 10 at the “Track Too Tough to Tame” in at least 50% of their starts (minimum: 10 career races). Of those, eight are active today (see chart). All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers are on the list, with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon first and third, respectively. Of course, traditionalists will argue that Darlington isn’t nearly as daunting as she used to be, and that the greater reliability of modern racing equipment skews the stats. Still, the numbers speak to the durability of modern Cup competitors, and of the Hendrick teams in particular.

A Race by Any Other Name…

It’s not your father’s Southern 500. It’s your GoDaddy’s Southern 500. In a strange marriage of old-school stock car tradition and modern e-commerce, Saturday’s race at Darlington is officially called the Southern 500 presented by GoDaddy.com (a domain-name registration service). It’s the first time Darlington has used the “Southern 500” handle since NASCAR reduced the number of races at the track from two per year to one. In another retro touch, Darlington has brought back its old red-and-white color scheme.

The Fine Print

If you’re confused by the nature of big-time racing contracts, you’re not alone. Consider Brad Keselowski, who shocked the world by winning the Cup race at Talladega last month. Keselowski is a Hendrick Motorsports development driver – but he won Talladega while driving for Phoenix Racing, which is owned by James Finch. Moreover, he drives for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick, in the Nationwide Series. The situation seemed to leave even Junior uncertain of Keselowski’s status. “Well, I’d like Brad to drive my Nationwide car again if he wants to,” Earnhardt said. “But as far as what he does in his Cup stuff, that’s with Rick. It’s my understanding that that’s particularly not any of my business up until they’re ready to share that information.”

WEEKLY STATS

Percentage of Top-10 Finishes at Darlington, All Time

RANK            DRIVER         STARTS        Pct. Top-10s

1            Jimmie Johnson*        10        80.0

2            Bill Elliott*            52        67.3

3            Jeff Gordon*        28          64.3

4            David Pearson        47        63.8

5            Fireball Roberts        20        60.0

6             Ned Jarrett            15        60.0

7            Ryan Newman*        10        60.0

8             Mark Martin*        42        59.5

9            Bobby Allison        45        57.8

10            Jeff Burton*              26           57.7

11            Marvin Panch        18          55.6

12            Dale Earnhardt        44        54.5

13            Paul Goldsmith        11          54.5

14            Benny Parsons        38          52.6

15            Richard Petty        65          52.6

16            Jim Paschal            25          52.0

17            Buck Baker            30        50.0

18            Tony Stewart*        16        50.0

19            Davey Allison        14          50.0

20            Dale Earnhardt Jr.*    14          50.0

*Active

Minimum 10 starts