Twice in less than a week, Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski has expressed the sentiment that NASCAR has hit gold with its current racing format.
There have been five Cup Series races run in the last 15 days. Across all three of its series, NASCAR has held nine races in 16 days. There have been rain delays and postponements, overtime attempts and tempers, a bounty collected, carnage at Bristol, and yes, some snoozers too. All of that has been on the track, but to Keselowski’s point, which he first offered after the May 28 race at Charlotte, it has been everything surrounding the events that have been a success.
“The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the east and west coast,” said Keselowski. “No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good, because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. It’s compelling, and it’s a time where quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content.
“I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”
After winning at Bristol on Sunday, Keselowski reiterated his point when asked why there have been so many drivers making mistakes recently. Without a chance to practice or work on the cars, Keselowski believes the format lends itself to errors, and that isn’t a bad thing.
“These are great formats,” he said. “We’ve seen some of the best racing we’ve ever seen in NASCAR accordingly. I’m not just saying that because I’m in victory lane. I think a lot of people would say this was a tremendous race, and I hope they enjoyed it.”
Declaring the last two weeks to have been some of the best racing ever might be a stretch, but there have been plenty of highlights. Darlington, with its tire falloff, was a treat considering Goodyear builds such durable tires that it’s rare to have a race where the tires fell off as quickly as they did, thereby forcing drivers and teams to manage their allotted sets.
The short track package led to a phenomenal race at Bristol. Drivers were all over the track, using the bumper, making mistakes, and there were battles throughout the field. With 17 caution flags, it was like the “Bristol of old” where chaos wasn’t hard to find.
After being forced to pause for 10 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR officials were put in the position of needing to change its routine to return. It has led to trying different things, like the inverts and random draws, and there are no practices or qualifying because it seemed a better idea of getting teams in and out of a facility in one day.
Campers and track promoters will likely disagree, but the slimmed-down weekend has been pleasurable. Only marking the calendar with race day, leaving the rest of the week to fill with news and telling stories, has made these two weeks, for as action-packed as they have been, feel lighter and more productive.
And practice? Cup Series drivers have proven it’s unneeded. Even after 10 weeks away, they jumped back in at Darlington and had no problem sending their cars off into the first corner. Less is more when it comes to track time ahead of qualifying. Considering that teams put so much emphasis on their engineers and simulators, on-track practice is likely to lead teams in the wrong direction then make them better. Or they spend time – with so many practice sessions available – trying something, only to go back to their original setup.
It’s easy to sit here as a spectator, someone with no ties to a race team or with any financial ties to what happens on the track, and opine about how it’s a waste of time and resources. The inverts and random draws have created storylines for drivers to start where they likely wouldn’t have qualified, but when all is said and done, the best teams are still at the top of the finishing order.
“There are some things that we’ll look at both this year and the off-season,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps last week. “Typically, we practice three times. Do we need to practice three times? I don’t know. That is something we, as an industry, will determine.
“Having cars on racetracks, is that something that’s important with respect to a practice? Or isn’t it? Or frankly, do you have a better show when you don’t practice? And those are some of the things we need to look at. But do I think at some point this year we’re going to have a schedule that looks more like it did when we left Phoenix? I think the answer is probably yes. Again, what that looks like and will it be tweaked or will it be cut back a little bit, those are all things we need to determine, and we’ll do that working with our industry.”
Forced to adapt due to unforeseen circumstances, NASCAR might end up better for it, should some of these variables stick around going forward.