NASCAR is in the re-invention mode, so fans who like it the way it is need to embrace this year, because next year will be very different.
The key moment this year will be around the start of April when the 2021 schedule is announced, giving everyone a hint at where the sport might be headed. The schedule could be shortened, experimental weekend doubleheaders could be on the docket and races could be shorter and traditional stops minimized.
“We’re looking at three things when we’re looking at that race schedule,” Steve Phelps, NASCAR president, said at his state of the sport news conference in November. “We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service.”
NASCAR remains the only sport that has its Super Bowl as the first event of the season, not the last. The season gets going in earnest Sunday with Daytona 500 pole qualifying, a week full of auxiliary races and finishing Feb. 16 with the race.
“I think if you take a step back and you think back to where we were [last] February at the Daytona 500, it was an industry that was finding its footing, right? A sport that was finding its footing,” Phelps said. “You could feel the sport kind of rallying around itself. You could feel momentum that was coming, a real excitement.”
The sport has been on a small rebound after a rapid rise in the 2000s before a plateau, followed by a decline. But last year, the sport’s television ratings slightly increased.
“The results from the competition side are working from a consumption standpoint,” Phelps said. “If you look at the fans … how they’re responding to it, if you look apples to apples, our ratings are up 4% this year. All of sports is down 9%; we’re plus 4%.”
On that backdrop, NASCAR enters this season with these five story lines to watch.
A new schedule: No, NASCAR, known to be so flexible it would change rules in the middle of a race, is not moving its biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500. But it did move the other Daytona race off July 4 weekend, where it has been for more than 60 years, to Aug. 29. The coveted July 4 holiday weekend spot now goes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the Brickyard 400.
But the big change is kicking the season-ending race from Homestead, Fla., to Phoenix, which just finished a $178-million rehabilitation project. In what might be a sign of things to come, NASCAR has added a doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway with races on Saturday and Sunday, June 27-28. This allows the season to end a week earlier on Nov. 8.
And the West Coast swing comes to Southern California earlier than ever, with just one race (Las Vegas) between Daytona and the stop at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on March 1.
Jimmie Johnson’s last ride: The seven-time NASCAR champion will be paraded out at every stop to reflect on what has been a great career. He announced in November that this year would be his last as a full-time driver. “The sport has been good to me,” Johnson said when making the announcement on Twitter. “It has allowed me to do something I truly love. I showed up chasing a dream and achieved more than I ever thought possible.”
The El Cajon native is tied with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most number of season titles. He has 83 wins, including two Daytona 500s, four Brickyard 400s and six times at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. But he hasn’t won a race since June 2017.
Any expectation that he will turn things around and win the season title seems remote at best. But you can expect NASCAR to celebrate his time in the sport as if it were 2006-2010 when he won five straight titles.
Last year for the Gen-6: This will be the final time the Gen-6 car, which was introduced in 2013, is seen. Next year will usher in the Gen-7. The Gen-6 was introduced to have the cars look more like the showroom cars that can be bought from a dealer. And Gen-7 is going to have that goal, too. Creating brand identity is at the core of keeping the big manufacturers interested in the sport.
But where the Gen-7 will seek to evolve things is under the hood. The desire is to attract Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to join the big guys in the business of NASCAR. The rules will also be structured to promote that kind of change.
“I do think … that engine will have some type of electrification, some hybrid that will be part of it,” Phelps said. “This engine is going to sound significantly the same as whatever the current engine is. We’re not going to have a bunch of electric cars going around.”
What does all that mean to this year? Well, it should cause the teams to leave nothing in the garage. The cars are all headed to the scrap heap anyway, so teams will try to get as much out of the cars as they can. No reason to save anything.
Can Kyle Busch repeat?: This is the same story line for about a decade. Can last year’s champion, in this case, Kyle Busch, repeat as champion? The reason it’s an issue is it hasn’t been done since 2010, when Johnson won his fifth straight title.
A good start would be for Busch to win the Daytona 500, something he hasn’t done in 14 tries. Last year, he finished second, wedged between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.
It’s no surprise that the Las Vegas sportsbooks have Busch near the top, along with Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Hamlin. Last year, Busch won five races, had 17 top-five finishes and 27 top-10 finishes.
Boogity, boogity, boogity no more: The final story line isn’t something that’s there but someone who’s not. Darrell Waltrip, whose signature call was a trifecta of boogitys at the start of every race, has retired from the announcing position he’s had at Fox since 2001.
Rather than trying to replace him, Fox is going to a two-man booth, with Mike Joy doing the play-by-play and former driver Jeff Gordon as the analyst. The television racing schedule is split between Fox, which includes FS1, and NBC, which includes NBCSN. Fox has the first 16 races and NBC the final 20, including the championship.