Chris Gill: The perfect schedule for the Chase
Any regular readers of this space know that I believe NASCAR has yet to take advantage of its 36-race schedule for the Sprint Cup Series. There are too many repeats, not enough road/street courses and big markets all but ignored by America’s most popular form of auto racing.
The current schedule works well and is understandable, if you’re stuck in 2000 a la “Groundhog Day,” but the times have changed, and NASCAR just hasn’t turned the corner quickly enough. The Sprint Cup Series has joined, and in some cases surpassed, the "big four" of American pro sports (so now it would be the "big five," right?), but NASCAR doesn’t act like it yet.
Imagine a schedule with 30 different race tracks – there are bound to be repeats like Daytona and Talladega, no matter how much it pains this plate-racing hater to admit it. The series doesn’t test its deep field of skilled drivers as well as it could, and then everyone wonders why people grow tired of the sport once September rolls around.
Last week, NASCAR’s playoffs kicked off at Chicagoland Speedway – a 1.5-mile clone of tracks in Las Vegas and Kansas – to a ho-hum response from sports fans. The race started after 1 p.m. on an NFL Sunday afternoon. That logic is like walking into a bar to pick up girls after last call. This week, the series visits the flat mile in New Hampshire – a driver’s track, to be sure, but not one which historically produces edge-of-the-couch action.
The next eight races will take place at Dover, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. Of the 10 Chase races, eight are repeats – tracks people have already seen on the schedule earlier in the season – five are of the 1.5-mile format and there isn’t anything remotely resembling a road/street course in there.
Only Chicagoland and Homestead are unique to the 36-race grind, and frankly, neither of them produce interesting events. If you’re throwing a party, and want people to come and stay into the wee hours, you don’t hold the gala in a room with no windows, white walls, devoid of decor and, worst of all, no booze.
With that in mind, I’ve compiled the ideal Chase schedule, including tracks the series does not currently visit and eliminating real-world snags like politics and “marketing synergy.”
Round I – Richmond International Raceway. This 3/4-mile D-oval has been the site of the regular season finale since 2004, offering some gripping events. Well before the Chase was introduced, RIR has been a track with great racing, and kicking off the Chase under the lights on a Saturday night would help generate some enthusiasm early.
Round II – Watkins Glen International. You knew this was going to make the cut – a wicked fast 2.45-mile, seven-turn natural terrain road course that most of the Chase regulars feel comfortable on. Annually, it produces some of the best racing moments, but in my perfect world would do so with real consequences. The only hitch is, it has to be early in the playoffs due to weather and shorter days.
Round III – Darlington Raceway. Since my ideal schedule is a test of driving, The Track Too Tough To Tame deserves a spot in a demanding playoff grind. Given it’s location (South Carolina) and the time of year, I’d like to put the storied 1.336-mile Darlington track later in the Chase, but want to avoid nasty weather.
Round IV – Talladega Superspeedway. As much as I loathe plate races, they exist so one must be represented in the Chase. I wouldn’t want to move it any later into the playoffs because these helter skelter events on the 2.66-mile sprawling speedways are real game changers, and no one wants to see drivers lose a championship because they got swept up in The Big One.
Round V – Bristol Motor Speedway. The halfway point of the Chase should have a marquee-type of event, and even die-hard stick-and-ball sports fans know of Bristol’s reputation. This will also put two tracks of less than one mile in the playoffs, which serves as a nod to NASCAR’s roots on the bullrings. Lights are also a big plus for scheduling flexibility.
Round VI – Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Why the most famous race track on the planet isn’t in the Chase is beyond me. Indiana in October may not be inviting, but a 400-mile race at the 2.5-mile Brickyard gives the race something it hasn’t had in some time – prestige. It’s a great test of driving and oozes history. The only setback for this would be a lack of lighting. Hey, nothing wrong with an 11 a.m. start to get out in front of the Sunday NFL games.
Round VII – Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Imagine 3,500-pound stock cars rumbling through the corkscrew – this is among my Top 3 favorite fantasies, just behind watching a “Star Wars” marathon from my bed with 1970s-era Carrie Fisher dressed as slave Leia. Don’t judge. This 2.238-mile road course is one the best in the country, and one of the most challenging. In weather-friendly Monterey, Calif., it will also give the series an obligatory West Coast event, and one vastly more interesting than the 2-mile D-oval down the coast in Fontana.
Round VIII – Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I put this on the list with some reluctance, because it’s a 1.5-mile oval, but Vegas the first of it’s kind and, of course, representative of the regular season schedule. With dry weather and lights, the weekend schedule for this event is extremely flexible and it continues a nice western swing.
Round IX – Phoenix International Raceway. This is the one track on the existing schedule that makes sense – both in terms of the kind of circuit and position in the Chase. This is a 1-mile tri-oval that tests drivers and crew chiefs, and since the weather in Arizona only changes once every four months, the later in the schedule the better. It also has lights, so could be run on a Saturday late afternoon/night.
Round X – Texas Motor Speedway. Why wouldn’t you hold the finale at a grand, new track like Texas? The president, Eddie Gossage, is one of the slickest promoters in pro sports and his palace sits in the ninth largest metro area in the country – seven of the top eight are all in cold-weather cities except Los Angeles, which isn’t nearly as fervent about auto racing like the Texans are. Of the 1.5-mile double-dogleg ovals, this one seems to produce the most eye candy and is representative of its brethren in Charlotte, N.C., and Hampton, Ga. With lights available, the races could be held any time of NASCAR’s choosing to avoid potential conflicts with Dallas Cowboys or University of Texas football games.
Chris Gill, who covers auto racing for The Leader, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @TheLeaderGill.