Denny Hamlin first offered a deadpan answer about the number of road courses on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
“More road courses, for sure,” Hamlin said.
Then he gave a tight smile. When the follow-up question came about whether that was sarcastic, he laughed and said, “I don’t know, is it?”. Then Hamlin laughed again.
“More,” he said. “More of everything.”
Daytona was the first of seven road course events this year. The original 2021 schedule consisted of six road course races, but Daytona became a fallback when it was decided early on that Fontana was out of the question. Still, it was a healthy increase from the traditional three road course races that had been on the schedule.
And so, seven it is: seven opportunities for chaos and unpredictability. Or perhaps you find entertainment in stock cars trying to do what they aren’t meant to do (i.e., race on a road course).
Hamlin left his comments open for interpretation. Here’s one: it certainly seemed like after running both the Busch Clash and a points-paying event on the Daytona road course, Hamlin already has left and right fatigue.
When another reporter pointed out it would be three months before the next road course race on May 23 in Austin, Texas, it was clear Hamlin was faking his disappointment when saying, “shoot.”
If Hamlin isn’t fatigued now, he most likely will be by the time the season is over. And he probably won’t be the only one.
An increase in road courses forces drivers and teams to become much more versatile. Six of the seven road races are in the regular season, so getting to the playoffs will require a serious effort at those facilities. Then the Charlotte Roval awaits in the postseason, ready to make a driver earn a spot in the next round. Ask Clint Bowyer how it felt to battle the last 30 laps of the 2020 race without power steering, or Kyle Busch about needing a Roval miracle to keep his title defense alive.
Intermediate tracks have long been the bread and butter of the NASCAR schedule, but everyone in the garage now admits that just as much effort and emphasis need to go toward road courses. A team cannot afford to toss those races aside like they could when there were so few of them.
“We listen to the fans,” Joey Logano said. “The fans said they wanted more road course racing, boom, you got it. Hope you like it, because we got a lot of it.”
Variety is the spice of life, right? Or so the saying goes. NASCAR did one hell of a job giving its schedule more variety. It has long needed to break away from the monotony of intermediate after intermediate after intermediate with a short track and road course thrown in. But it was a surprise that NASCAR chose to shake things up with so much of different form of racing.
Logano is OK with it and said it’s the right thing for the sport. He argues that the Daytona course puts on a good show and brings strategy into play. Sunday afternoon, Logano and his No. 22 team used that to great effect and almost manufactured a win, but finished second after being caught and passed by Christopher Bell with two laps to go.
“That’s the fun part about it, is that you’re never really out of it,” Logano said. “I think this track is great. I’m interested to see what COTA is going to be like. We know Watkins Glen puts on great races. We’ve seen Sonoma be great. We’ve seen the Roval be entertaining on the last lap.
“It’s fun. I like it as a driver because I’m not doing the same thing every week. I like that. I think that’s a pretty big challenge for me. But I think it’s attractive for the best drivers in America to want to race in the NASCAR Cup Series because you have to be good at everything, including dirt racing.”
Dirt is another story, so let us not lose focus on all the road courses. Logano wasn’t wrong in saying that NASCAR has seen some great races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen over the years, which helped the cause for those calling for more road courses. Then came something different with the Roval.
Perhaps this is a classic case of being careful what you wish for because you just might get it. NASCAR’s road course fun is just getting started, and time will tell if others join Hamlin in putting on a brave face knowing there are still more to come.