Make Atlanta Motor Speedway the regular season finale


Make Atlanta Motor Speedway the regular season finale

Sunday marked the second race of the NASCAR Cup Series at the recently redesigned Atlanta Motor Speedway. Both races have produced a style of competition more akin to a throttle plate race than what you would see at a traditional intermediate course.

In fact, Atlanta’s races were similar to those at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in the early 1990s. Instead of a huge pack of 30 or more cars driving close together, the field split into smaller groups of around 10 cars. Handling was more important in Atlanta and having a car that could handle the traffic was crucial to a good result. Not everyone will like the new Atlanta, but it’s interesting to see how the track’s reconfiguration has brought back an old style of racing that’s unique to the current NASCAR landscape.

For the foreseeable future, Atlanta looks set to produce superspeedway-style racing. A date change is therefore pending for 2023. NASCAR is scheduled to move the Atlanta summer race to the regular-season finale. The Daytona summer race can then roll back to its actual date around July 4th. The Road America race may remain on the Cup Series schedule on the date currently occupied by Atlanta.

It was extremely disappointing to see the Daytona summer race being postponed from Independence Day. Although the “other Daytona race” will always be overshadowed by the Daytona 500, the 400-mile race had a unique history and prestige of its own. It always felt appropriate for NASCAR to, like so many Americans, head to the beach for a holiday weekend and celebrate the founding of the United States with a race at NASCAR’s signature track.

There was never any doubt that the Daytona Independence Day race was a special event. It was a race that many riders had circled on their calendars, one that all teams put in a little extra effort to win.

Even the TV stations treated it as something special. Remember how FOX and NBC traded Daytona races with each other from 2001 to 2006? It speaks to the importance of the summer race that TV networks were willing to swap it out for the biggest race of the year. One of the biggest holiday weekends of the year deserves a special race, and Daytona has always delivered on and off the track.

But the Daytona Fourth of July tradition came to an abrupt end in 2020 when the 400-mile race became the regular season finale. It was obvious why NASCAR made the switch. Placing a restriction plate event, often one of the most unpredictable races of the year, at the end of the regular season increased the chances of a last-minute shake up of the playoff field. Pack races have a greater potential to produce a surprise winner than any other type of race in the Cup Series. With the “win and you’re in” playoff format, a regular season finale at Daytona maximizes the chances for the postseason drama NASCAR has been chasing for almost 20 years.

But when the race was postponed from Independence Day, it felt like the Daytona summer race had lost some of its luster. Victories at Daytona are still treasured by NASCAR competitors, but now it feels like winning the summer race is more of a means to the playoffs than a significant achievement in itself. Personally, I queasy at the thought of the playoffs dulling the meaning of Daytona.

If NASCAR needs to have a superspeedway race at the end of the regular season, why not Atlanta? With its new configuration, Atlanta has the potential to match all the thrills and surprises that Daytona offers. Sunday’s race nearly saw Corey LaJoie claim his first Cup Series win. Imagine how compelling it would have been to see LaJoie fight for his first win and a place in the playoffs on his last opportunity of the season. As long as Atlanta can offer superspeedway-style racing, it has all the wildcard potential of Daytona.

Moving Atlanta to the regular season finale would also give fans an added incentive to attend the race. Despite an exciting race earlier this year, the Atlanta crowd was meagre for Sunday’s race. There’s no doubt that the threat of rain and the reassurances of high heat and humidity likely put some fans off. But if NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are to justify two Cup Series races in Atlanta each year going forward, the track needs to attract more spectators.

Holding the second Atlanta race on a Saturday night at the end of the regular season should fix the attendance problem. Yes, NASCAR has moved away from night racing lately due to low TV ratings. But there is clearly one point where circuit participation is important to the sanctioning authority. Why else did the Bristol Motor Speedway spring race become a dirt track event? Why did the two Richmond Raceway dates jump from day to night and back again? Also, if hosting the regular-season finale fails to draw a good crowd to Atlanta, NASCAR will have to reconsider the question of whether or not the track should get two races.

As for the Independence Day weekend race, NASCAR hasn’t found a good fix since leaving Daytona. Racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway around the Fourth of July lasted just a year and the future of Road America on the Cup Series schedule remains up in the air. Road America is a historic circuit with plenty of scenic beauty and local fans should get plenty of credit for the strong attendance over the past two years. But in terms of racing action, the two Cup races at Road America have mostly fallen flat. It was good that last weekend’s race featured an exciting battle for victory between Tyler Reddick and Chase Elliott. Otherwise the race would have been pretty much forgotten.

Road America may still find its niche in the NASCAR world, but it shouldn’t be happening in conjunction with the 4th of July. The races we saw last week weren’t a good example of how much fun street racing can be in NASCAR. Additionally, as much as Road America is historical in its own right, NASCAR contributed very little to that history. NASCAR’s Independence Day race must be held at a NASCAR track, and there is no track as integral to the sport’s identity as Daytona.

The playoffs were never a good excuse to postpone the Daytona 400 from Independence Day weekend. But now that Atlanta has become the de facto third superspeedway, it would be a great place to hold the regular season finale. Longtime fans will remember how Atlanta hosted the final race of the entire season from 1987-2000. Moving Atlanta to the end of the regular season would be a fitting callback to that tradition. It would also help increase track attendance and provide the unpredictability of superspeedway racing that NASCAR desires for its regular season finale. The Daytona 400 mile race can thus return to the Independence Day weekend.

NASCAR has learned from its experience with Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 not to mess with traditional race dates. Hopefully a similar course correction is in the works for the Daytona summer race and 2023.

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