NASCAR: Shortened weekday races earning rave reviews

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Shortened, weekday NASCAR races have become a necessity as the circuit tries to complete its full slate. But drivers are loving the change.

Unlike their NFL counterparts, NASCAR’s attempts at Thursday night proceedings earned some positive reviews.

With the circuit emerging as the first North American team sports unit to return from its coronavirus-induced hiatus, NASCAR has embarked on an ambitious plan to complete its full schedules. Such an endeavor required the premier Cup Series, as well as the lower-tier Xfinity and Truck circuits, to run races beyond their normal weekend timeslots. The latest endeavor came on Thursday night, as a busy week at Charlotte Motor Speedway wrapped up with the Alsco Uniforms 500 at the Cup level. Weather played a factor in the Thursday scheduling, as storms from Tropical Depression Bertha washed out the original date on Wednesday. CMS had previously played host to the Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday as well as Xfinity and Truck races earlier in the week.

Fans old and new have been treated to the exciting racing NASCAR has become known for, but there have been some changes. To turn race weekends into single-day events, qualifying has been mostly eliminated, as has practice. These races have also been run sans spectators and in front of limited in-person media. Social distancing mandates have also limited the number of team personnel at the track.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The plan, while ambitious, was rife with concerns. Was it right to subject drivers to such a workload? How would drivers work without on-track practice? Could social distancing realistically be maintained?

So far, NASCAR has been able to alleviate these concerns, giving other sports a model to follow as they slowly start to make their own plans toward a revival. They might be learning a thing or two about their own sport along the way.

Weekday races haven’t been perfect. The weather has been a bit uncooperative (a Cup event at Darlington Raceway ended early and both Charlotte races featured delays) and there have been some early on-track incidents in the early going of some races (i.e. Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase wrecking on Thursday’s opening lap). But, in rare unanimity amongst participants, the drivers are responding well.

“I feel really good,” Thursday winner Chase Elliott said about the short turnaround time in a postrace Zoom conference call. “I feel like I tried to stay biking and doing things throughout those two months off, and honestly coming back and going back to Darlington where it was hot and then coming into the 600, it kind of just threw us back right to the wolves, and I think that was really a good thing just to really get some hot races and some long races in right off the bat and just jump right to it.  I feel good, and I’m certainly tired, it’s been a long week, but I’m going to rest these next couple days and get ready for Bristol.”

One of the most glaring differences in the weekday events is how long they last. Whereas most races operate by miles, often those seen in the race’s label, the races run during the week have gone by titular kilometers. The Alsco Uniforms 500, good for 208 circuits around a 1.5-mile oval, was the shortest-ever Cup Series event held at Charlotte, which is best known for hosting the longest race in NASCAR (the aforementioned Coca-Cola 600).

Everyone loves to go racing, but some drivers actually prefer the short lengths. The difference has also been seen on a different kind of stopwatch. Thursday’s race, removing the circa 75-minute rain delay, took just over two-and-a-half hours to finish. Thursday’s runner-up Denny Hamlin likened such a runtime to a regulation NBA contest.

“Heck with tradition; you’ve got to advance with the times,” said Hamlin, the winner of the Cup Series’ previous weekday event at Darlington’s Toyota 500. “I think that keeping people’s attention span for three hours is a good thing. It’s a very good thing. These cars are different now than what they used to be.  It used to be a battle of machine, you’re going to wear out your tires and your brakes and whatnot. They just don’t wear out anymore, so essentially it just becomes a long race after that.”

Elliott himself felt that the shortened race raised the on-track tenacity, in contrast to the time-biding strategies often seen in lengthy events like Sunday’s 600-mile competition.

“I think it’s great. I think it ups the intensity. I think you have to have your car driving really well from the start, and if it doesn’t, you have to make those big swings early.  I feel like it just ramps up the intensity and everything that comes with that. Just the clock is ticking and you don’t have a lot of time to do much of anything.”

The pace of play argument has become prevalent across major sports. Baseball has perhaps led the way with numerous time-saving proposals (including pitch clocks and opening extra innings with a man on base. One of the XFL’s tenets before its cancellation was maintaining a manageable game length.

Weekday races could well become the new norm, even when sports and society begin to revert to even more familiar settings. It could be one of the ways NASCAR maintains the newfound popularity it has discovered through fans perhaps biding their time until their usual favorite sports return.

NASCAR’s season is far longer than its competition, beginning with candies on Valentine’s Day and running until its end breaches the Thanksgiving turkey’s territory. It’s good to leave an impact on the calendar, but with such a long season comes the challenge of making every single portion relevant. NASCAR’s biggest event remains the season-opening Daytona 500 but its ten-race playoff proceedings happening in the heat of fall’s jam-packed schedule. Basketball on both the professional and amateur levels is reopening, as is the NHL. The NFL season is in full swing, and their college counterparts are battling for bowl and playoff positioning. The fact that a majority of NASCAR events are held the weekend during popular exploits on the gridiron can serve only as a detraction. Even in NASCAR’s supposed southern hubs, viewership isn’t guaranteed. It’s cruel to convince a fan in, say, Alabama to choose between Talladega and Tuscaloosa.

Weekday races could be a way to create autumn separation.

If anything, NASCAR’s status as one of the only major professional team sports leagues operating gives it a chance to experiment as they continue to roll out their slate. The Cup Series enters more familiar territory with a Sunday race at Bristol Motor Speedway this Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox), and there’s at least one experiment coming. On Wednesday, June 10, Martinsville Speedway will host its first-ever night race. That event is currently the last weekday event on the slate (with the exception of some previously scheduled Truck races) but the modern flexibility afforded (NASCAR currently has races confirmed through June 21) could change that.

If the drivers’ comments are any indication, they’ll certainly hope for some revisions.

“I certainly like the change, and on a weeknight time slot that we have, it’s got to be tightened up anyway, so I think this was a good taste of it,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “They’ll gather the data and figure out what’s best for them in the future.  Maybe it’s keeping them long, I’m not sure. Let the people that know a lot more about it speak on it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

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