Fans demand more road courses and NASCAR knows it

Boy, have times changed.

Fans demand more road courses and NASCAR knows it
Start: Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota leads
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Trouble for Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing Ford, crashed car
Start: Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota leads
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
A view of the Pagoda
The view of Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Kurt Busch's helicopter
Wrecked car of Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Wide view of Watkins Glen
Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford, pit action
Pit action
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing, pit action

Old-guard stock car enthusiasts used to thumb their noses at any event not held on an oval.

Suddenly, NASCAR fans can’t get enough of road course racing.

“We’re absolutely aware of that,” said NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think it becomes the challenge of where we are on the schedule — with the 36 races we have. And then the fact that every race matters.

“Having those two road courses where they are is really important in the schedule--to see people have a chance to potentially make the Chase and go out there and run off a win.”

From an entertainment value standpoint, it’s hard to beat a good battle on a short track. Restrictor-plate racing is an animal all to itself. And with the tweaks the sanctioning body has made to the current rules package, even the intermediate tracks have been competitive.

An increasing demand for more road courses

But time and time again, fans wonder why there aren’t more road courses on the schedule — particularly in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“We love the fact that we have road course racing on the schedule,” O’Donnell added. “We do have some weather challenges when you look at road courses.

“But we’re definitely aware of the desire for the fans — it’s not NASCAR ignoring it. There’s a lot of logistics involved. When you talk to (WGI president) Michael Printup or (Sonoma president) Steve Page, they like where they are in the schedule. It really works for them and we have to take that in mind as well.”

Page has often said he doesn’t want to compete against the football in the fall. That’s understandable, given the rich history of the San Francisco 49ers and the University of California across the bay in Berkeley. However, it’s hard to beat wine country in autumn during grape-picking season.

The weather at the Glen last weekend was absolutely ideal. And an early fall date would be lovely as well. But weather isn't the same kind of issue on a road course that it is on an oval since Goodyear provides rain tires to the teams in case of inclement weather.

Still, the dilemma really isn’t about moving Sonoma or the Glen into the playoffs as much as it's about the challenge of finding another road course with adequate infrastructure to support the Sprint Cup Series. But chances are that won’t happen for the next five years. Last October, NASCAR announced the same 23 venues will be on the Cup schedule through 2020.

Ovals that double as road courses

While that’s great for the track operators, it’s likely not what the fans want to hear.

Now, several venues have the capability of transforming an oval into a road course. Indianapolis and Daytona modify their facilities for IndyCar and IMSA, respectively. So why not for NASCAR?

As NASCAR evolves into more of a made-for-TV sport, the sanctioning body must give credence to the entertainment value of the on track product. Short of creating an Indy-specific package for the Brickyard 400, the race will never regain the status it enjoyed prior to the 2008 tire debacle. But the event could certainly benefit from something fresh.

For now, the fans will have to wait patiently until the Cup tour rolls into Sonoma — 10 months from now.

Rave reviews

Overall, the Glen was a huge success. The proof was in the number of campers — both inside and out of the circuit — the fans in the infield and grandstands as well as the traffic on Saturday and late into Sunday night.

Although there were some concerns regarding the newly-paved track, with two test sessions and a conservative tire, the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen went off without a hitch.

“Any time there’s a repave, there’s a lot of trepidation heading in,” O’Donnell said. “Typically, it’s a challenge for us but all in all, I thought, no different Watkins Glen. You look at last year versus this year, and I thought it was a great race. The track did a great job — and you could see that from the race teams coming in. The tire certainly performed well. So, all in all, terrific job by everyone.

“Candidly, during the race, you almost forgot there was a repave. It was like we were at Watkins Glen with the same instance of 2015.”

Bad timing?

Perhaps the biggest surprise on Sunday came in the number of speeding penalties on pit road.

While teams received sheets detailing the timing lines — and preemptive warnings were issued by crew chiefs and spotters following a rash of infractions — throughout the course of the race, seven drivers were busted in the first 54 laps.

O’Donnell acknowledged additional timing lines were added to pit road at the Glen in an effort to highlight the work of the pit crews. O’Donnell believes the move will even the playing field.

“You never want to catch anyone speeding, certainly, on pit road,” O’Donnell said. “But the reason those timing loops are there is to make the competition as close as possible and have teams really have to rely on their pit crews to have an advantage versus maybe kind of skirting the rules a little bit in between loops.

“What was happening was we had a bigger gap in the loops that were on pit road than the amount of pit stalls a team could drive through. We were seeing teams really cross that line — and then hit the gas — and have an advantage depending on where they were on pit road. So we just added some additional pit lines that really brought the pit crews back into play more. We were trying to avoid any competitive advantage for a particular pit stall.”

But one of the benefits of being a top qualifier in time trials is selecting the best pit stalls. O’Donnell said the teams supported NASCAR’s decision and are adapting to the additional timing lines.

“Like anything, you’re going to see some challenges with it,” O’Donnell said. “I think all in all it’s the right thing to do and it will continue to play out throughout the year.”

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