NASCAR Has Made a Mockery of Indy and Created Irreparable Damage by Ditching the Oval

As with life in general, the NASCAR world has certain institutions such as the Indy oval that should be held sacred and remain untouched regardless of how much times change.

Take the Daytona 500, for example. To even suggest that NASCAR’s season-opener — “The Great American Race” — should fall off the Cup Series schedule or even move to another place on the calendar is nothing short of asinine.

Oh sure, there was a time just over 40 years ago when NASCAR’s premier series actually didn’t begin its season at the track known as The World Center of Racing. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine ever starting a season anywhere other than Daytona. The tradition of kicking off the year with the most prestigious race — the biggest of NASCAR’s so-called “crown jewel” events — has become so embedded in the fabric of the sport over four decades that it’s unlikely to ever change. Nor should it ever change.

The Indy oval is another tradition that didn’t need to change

Similarly, the Coca-Cola 600, held every Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has become a pillar of the Cup Series tour. To shorten this race — the only 600-miler — or move it to a different weekend would be an unforgivable decision in the hearts and minds of most people who care even the least bit about the sport.

Given the backlash that would inevitably result from moving or shortening the 600, neither is likely to ever happen. And as with the Daytona 500, that’s a good thing.

So why did NASCAR feel so empowered last season to move its lone Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the fabled 2.5-mile Indy oval to the not-so-iconic IMS road course? Sure, the history of IMS in NASCAR might not run as deep as that of Daytona and Charlotte, but from 1994-2020, the Brickyard 400 was a huge deal and widely considered another of the sport’s “crown jewels.” 

Now, it’s just another race. In fact, it’s not even called the Brickyard 400 anymore, because it’s not 400 miles.

These days, the Brickyard is but another stop on a jam-packed 36-race schedule in which many races are forgotten almost as quickly as they’re contested.

Drivers are justifiably partial to the Indy oval

Unlike the oval track at Indianapolis — home to the Indianapolis 500, arguably the most famous one-day event in motorsports since its inaugural running in 1911 — the road course at Indianapolis, which combines portions of the oval with a road circuit in the speedway’s infield, didn’t host a major professional racing series until 2000.

Since then, the NASCAR Cup Series has competed just once on the Indy road course, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series has raced there twice — each of the last two years — and the NTT IndyCar Series has traversed the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course a total of 12 times.

Obviously, when it comes to tradition, there’s no comparison between Indy’s oval and road circuits.

“I think racing on the oval was so cool just because I was a kid and went and watched an Indy 500 back in the late ’90s,” Cup Series driver Aric Almirola said in his team’s news release ahead of Sunday’s Verizon 200 At The Brickyard. “It was a special place, and to race on the oval was just special. I mean, you think about the history of that race track and the people that have run around that rectangular race track and crossed that Yard of Bricks and all those things, and all the races that went on before you dating back to the early 1900s. It’s just a very special place. So to not race on the oval is weird.”

Weird and disheartening for motorsports purists who dream of winning on the same hallowed hardtop that NASCAR legends like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt once did — and that open-wheel icons like A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears once did.

“I think the Brickyard is special, and Indy is special, because of the oval – not because of the road course,” Denny Hamlin said during a Toyota media availability last year not long before the Cup Series raced on the Indy road course for the first time.

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, two-time Brickyard 400 winner Kyle Busch, is equally unenthusiastic about competing on the Indy road course for the second year in a row.

“It’s definitely not what the oval is, certainly not the Indy 500 or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that was always known for being the 2.5-mile oval, and all the history that came along with that from the 500 to the Brickyard 400 over the years, as well,” Busch said in his team’s prerace news release. “It’s another race track where it’s a different race track at the same venue.”

NASCAR needs to find middle ground at Indianapolis

NASCAR’s reason for moving its lone annual race at Indy to the road course was no secret. The oval track — despite all its history and pageantry — has never produced the most electrifying racing on the NASCAR side. This has left some observers to wonder if the track’s unique layout, which features four straightaways and four distinct turns banked at exactly 9 degrees, 12 minutes each, isn’t well-suited for stock cars.

One argument for keeping the road course is that last year’s first Cup race away from the Indy oval didn’t lack in drama or excitement.

AJ Allmendinger earned a surprise victory after the two lead cars of Chase Briscoe and Denny Hamlin tangled in the final two laps, with Hamlin spinning and Briscoe earning a penalty for cutting Turn 1 after being forced into the grass. So while most drivers might not be champing at the bit to return to the road course this weekend, most acknowledge that it has the potential to be a wildly entertaining affair.

Entertainment isn’t everything, though.

If most drivers prefer the Indy oval, and they’re willing to say so, their voices should be heard. The most practical and immediate solution might be the one offered by Daniel Suarez, who ironically picked up his first career Cup Series win back in June on a road course — Sonoma Raceway.

Asked if he would rather compete on the Indianapolis oval or road course, the Trackhouse Racing driver gave an extremely well-thought-out response.

“I think Indianapolis is a big enough deal for everyone in racing that maybe we should race there twice — once on the oval and once on the road course,” Suarez said with a smile, according to a news release from Team Chevy this week.

That’s a pretty spot-on assessment. When it comes to the Indy oval and the Indy road course, NASCAR doesn’t have to choose one or the other.

Bringing the Indy oval back is necessary, but its reputation is already damaged

Why not have a mid-week or Friday race on the Indy road course and then move to the oval on Sunday? Or vice versa. If that doesn’t work, maybe run Indy on back-to-back weekends. It could be like a mini Daytona Speedweeks, of sorts, or like the good ole days when Charlotte hosted the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 on consecutive weekends.

If it worked for Daytona and Charlotte, why couldn’t it work for Indianapolis?

After all, this is exactly what IndyCar does at Indianapolis: The series typically competes there twice a year, once on the oval and once on the road course (sometimes more than once). This has been happening since 2014. And unlike NASCAR, IndyCar didn’t abandon a sacred tradition to make the road course part of its annual race offerings.

With the lone exception of 2020, when COVID-19 forced a change in the schedule, the Indianapolis 500 has been held on or within a few days of Memorial Day weekend since its inception over a century ago. NASCAR could stand to learn from IndyCar and put the Brickyard 400 back on the calendar — while continuing to compete on the road course just the same.

Would this require taking a race away from another track? Maybe so. Maybe not. But either way, it’s worth a try. At the very least, it would appease the drivers and fans who don’t like this mockery that NASCAR has made of what used to be one of the most anticipated and cherished events on the Cup calendar.

If NASCAR doesn’t deem the Brickyard 400 important enough for it to have a place on the Cup schedule every year, why should drivers and fans view it as a crown jewel? The sad reality is that even if NASCAR reinstitutes the Brickyard in future seasons, the shine has been removed from this event — and it will never be the same.

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