With the Cup Series playoffs set to begin and no word yet on a 2023 Cup schedule, news of the next calendar for the sport’s premier division has to be right around the corner.
While NASCAR has already announced one blockbuster change for next season — a street race in downtown Chicago — the remainder of the schedule remains largely shrouded in mystery.
While it’s safe to go ahead and put the sport’s crown-jewel events like the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500 in ink, as well as the Championship 4 race at Phoenix, a significant portion of the schedule seems to be in flux. And the fact it’s taken NASCAR until this late in the year to reveal the schedule is a strong indicator that a major shakeup may be on the horizon.
Let’s take a look at a handful of changes NASCAR simply can’t afford not to make to the forthcoming itinerary for its top series.
1. NASCAR must implement more night races in the 2023 Cup schedule
Throughout the ‘90s and up until just a few years ago, night racing was a major fad in NASCAR. Among the tracks that added lights — or that already had lights and joined the Cup schedule – were Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Darlington Raceway, Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Bristol Motor Speedway hosted its first Cup Series night race in 1978, and the most recent track to add a night race — which happened in 2020 — was Martinsville Speedway.
Yet for this year, the only tracks scheduled to host a mostly nighttime race were Darlington, Bristol, Daytona (although the race had to be postponed and run in the day), Texas (if you count the All-Star Race), Martinsville, and Charlotte.
So why the move away from nighttime races, which informal polling has long indicated that fans actually prefer?
“I think sometimes TV has something to do with that, to be honest with you,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp told Sportscasting. “But I think you’ve gotta look and see what’s in the best interest of your fans. Are you better off having a day race where they can return later in the day to their homes, or are you better off having a night race? I think there’s give and take on both sides of it. I think you’ll see NASCAR doing everything they can to take care of the fans, and then you’ve got to also take care of the broadcast viewers.”
Tharp indicated that Darlington has given some consideration to hosting both its annual Cup Series races at night. For now, though, the South Carolina track’s spring race is held on a Sunday afternoon. This weekend’s Cook Out Southern 500 at the track “Too Tough to Tame” begins late in the day and ends well after dark.
“Back in the day when we ran on Mother’s Day weekend, it was a Saturday night race, but there’s a lot of factors that go into that,” Tharp said. “Broadcast certainly has a large say-so in that, and certainly we would do whatever we can to keep a race date. We get together, we get with NASCAR, we get with the TV partners and really try to come up with a date that fits everybody’s needs, so I think that there’s pros and cons on both sides of the coin. But if it’s better for us to run in the day, then most certainly, we’ll run in the day.”
So, in other words: Even if Darlington wanted to run both Cup races at night, the track’s hands are essentially tied because its schedule is at the mercy of NASCAR — which owns the track — and NASCAR’s TV partners in FOX Sports and NBC Sports.
For the fans who crave night racing, this is a sad reality they must face. Nevertheless, we can hope NASCAR will work it out so that at least a few more tracks can flip their lights back on or host multiple events under the stars throughout the 2023 Cup schedule.
2. It’s time for extra off-weeks
This year’s NASCAR Cup Series schedule — unlike any that I can recall — features just one off-week from mid-February through early November. That’s 37 weeks of racing (if you include the All-Star Race) with only one break along the way.
Absent from this year’s schedule was a longstanding NASCAR tradition of being idle on both Easter and Mother’s Day. No, instead of giving drivers and team members the day off in observance of these holidays, they raced at the Bristol dirt track and at Darlington, respectively.
If NASCAR is truly a family-friendly sport, as it likes to claim, it needs to return to its roots a bit in 2023 by taking a break on Easter and Mother’s Day — even if that means starting the season a week earlier and ending it a week later.
Burnout is real, and it’s hard not to feel for those who travel the circuit and have to be at every race. Plus, even most fans of the sport could probably stand a weekend with no NASCAR every now and then. It would be in the best interests of everyone — drivers, team members, fans, TV people, PR folks, media members, etc. — if the next Cup Series schedule included at least three breaks.
Fingers crossed it will happen, but it sounds unlikely.
3. The regular-season finale of the 2023 Cup schedule should find a new host
With all due respect to Daytona and its unparalleled history and place in the sport, having the fabled 2.5-mile superspeedway serve as host of the Cup Series’ regular-season finale for the last three years has been nothing short of a failed experiment.
Not only is the late-August weather in Central Florida too unpredictable for anyone to feel good about getting to run the race as scheduled, but the event itself has become nothing less than a demolition derby thanks to the close-quarters, big-pack, superspeedway-style racing that inevitably breeds numerous multi-car wrecks.
“You listen to every driver after they get out of the infield care center and they’re all like, ‘I hate this place. I hate this place,’” Joey Logano said during an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “You dread it eventually, because you just know [the big wreck] is coming. You strap in and you’re like, ‘I’m pulling these bad boys extra tight today because there’s a really good chance that I’m sideways in the fence at some point.’ And it happens every time. It’s not even surprising. … It’s Daytona. That’s what it is.”
The regular-season finale at Daytona was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. For multiple reasons.
Not only did rain force the postponement of the race from Saturday night to Sunday, but some three-quarters of the field ended up involved in accidents. Without question, the Daytona 500 should remain the first race of the season from now until the end of time because it’s the “Super Bowl of stock-car racing,” but it’s time to move the final race of the regular season to a track where drivers have considerably more control over their own destiny.
After all, this is the race that sets the field for the playoffs, right? Drivers should have an opportunity to put on a decent show and battle it out rather than practically being doomed for destruction before the green flag even waves.
4. The All-Star Race must also admit to a failed experiment and change venues
Speaking of failed experiments, running the All-Star Race at Texas the last two years hasn’t worked out as many had hoped. Both this year’s and last year’s All-Star Races have been humdrum, follow-the-leader affairs lacking the kind of drama and excitement that had previously defined this event for so long.
The 2022 edition of the All-Star Race was particularly hard on the eyes, producing a grand total of three lead changes over 140 laps. So uninspiring was the on-track product that NASCAR had to manufacture an unnecessary caution at the end of the race just to create a somewhat-close finish.
“Texas is kind of its own unique animal,” Chase Briscoe said on a Ford Racing teleconference back in May. “The other mile-and-a-halves we’ve ran, they all have multiple grooves where you can run all over the place. You can run up by the wall. You can run the middle. You can run on the bottom, where Texas is definitely a lot more one-lane dominant.”
Translation: Passing is all but impossible at Texas. That being so, it’s time for NASCAR to pass the All-Star Race baton to a track where passing isn’t like pulling teeth.
“I’m glad that NASCAR has started rotating this event some,” Chase Elliott, who won the All-Star Race at Bristol in 2020, said prior to this year’s event, per a Team Chevy news release. “I think that’s what this event was initially designed to do — give fans in the different regions a special event — and I think that’s really cool. It’s more like what other forms of sports do. I’m hoping that next year they switch it up and head somewhere else after being back in Texas for the second year.”
That’s NASCAR’s four-time Most Popular Driver talking there. Let’s hope NASCAR is listening as it crafts the 2023 Cup schedule.
5. Get doubleheaders back on the 2023 Cup schedule
Last but certainly not least, NASCAR would be wise to reinstitute at least a couple of doubleheader race weekends for the Cup Series in 2023.
If you’ll recall, doubleheaders were a thing in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced NASCAR to significantly alter the schedule in an effort to squeeze in all 36 points races. The result was Cup races on back-to-back weekend days at Pocono, Dover, and Michigan.
In 2021, Pocono once again hosted a doubleheader race weekend, but by the time this season rolled around, doubleheaders were no more. Now, the three tracks all have just a single race on the 2022 calendar.
That’s unfortunate, especially considering these three venues have been staples of the sport for somewhere in the neighborhood of five decades. To take a race away from places with such rich history is a bad idea, especially for more traditional fans.
While going to these tracks twice a year might be impractical with NASCAR continuing to expand into new markets, what’s far more practical — and a fair compromise — is to have these fabled facilities serve as the sites of doubleheaders.
After all, the only thing better than watching one race at these tracks on a weekend is watching two.