NASCAR unveiled the 2018 schedule on Wednesday, and it comes with bigger changes than fans may be used to with such announcements.
Here are the highlights, a grade for each move and some analysis. (Note: I haven’t seen the “spin” or the explanation for any of these moves yet, so maybe I’m missing a key point or argument on some of them).
MOVE: Richmond will be second race of playoffs after serving as the regular season cutoff race for the entire Chase/Playoff Era.
COMMENT: This one is a mixed bag. Richmond is one of my favorite tracks, but I’m worried it won’t be the typical short track race because drivers will be in points-racing mode and will not want to risk anything by pushing too hard. However, I like that it’s a Saturday night race because it avoids a conflict with the NFL after the season has started.
MOVE: The Brickyard 400 moves to the last race before the playoffs instead of its traditional July date.
COMMENT: Even though the racing at Indianapolis stinks for the most part, there’s still enough prestige associated with the Brickyard 400 to have that race stand on its own. Now there will be a mix of storylines: Both the Brickyard champion and the playoff field getting finalized. The race winner will be kissing the bricks while the other 15 playoff drivers stand around waiting for their group photo. And really, who is going to care who wins the Brickyard when the moment is all about the last driver getting a spot in the field? However, the major upside to this move is September in Indianapolis shouldn’t be nearly as hot as July. The local fans are definitely going to benefit from that.
MOVE: Second Las Vegas race starts the playoffs.
COMMENT: If NASCAR was going to lose Chicago as a big-market opener for the playoffs, at least Las Vegas is a suitable replacement. That will be a great place for everyone to get pumped about the playoffs starting. The only downside is it’s still pretty hot in Vegas at that time of year. And it’s going to be a Sunday day race, so…yeah. Bring a seat cushion, because your butt (along with the rest of you) is going to be quite warm. But overall, that should make for a fun weekend.
MOVE(S): Charlotte playoff race switches to the roval; Charlotte becomes Round 1 elimination race.
GRADES: A / A-
COMMENT 1: There are two parts to this, so they have to be graded separately. First of all, everyone finally gets the road course in the playoffs they’ve been asking for! But is it the right one? I’m going with “beggars can’t be choosers” on this and giving it a thumbs up. I have no idea how Cup cars are going to look on a roval (a “roval” means it uses part of the infield road course and part of the oval like in the Rolex 24 at Daytona), but I imagine they’ll get strung out much more than at a true road course. That’s OK, though — progress! Plus, the roval is practically guaranteed to be more interesting than a 500-mile intermediate track race anyway.
COMMENT 2: As for the elimination race element of it…whoa. That’s kind of crazy! It’s going to be quite a big wild card (you know how road courses can be) — although with the new playoff points system in place, the heavy hitters should be able to survive one bad race if something fluky happens. Still, chaos on a late restart at this race might take someone out — not unlike how Talladega used to be at the end of Round 2.
MOVE: Chicagoland gets bumped out of playoffs, moved to July.
GRADE: D for Chicago fans, B for everyone else.
COMMENT: I hate this for Chicago-area race fans and for the nice people at the track, because they just went from a pleasant-weather fall playoff race to a hot July 1 Sunday day race that means nothing. It’s now just another intermediate track race in the middle of the season. I guess since it opens NBC’s portion of the schedule, there will still be some hype associated with it (and NBC can go for bigger ratings on a Sunday afternoon than opening their season on a Saturday night). And putting Chicago in this spot allowed NASCAR to take a swing at some other big moves. But overall, it seems like a blow to the track.
MOVE: Dover opens Round 2 of playoffs instead of being Round 1 elimination; Dover moves from June to May.
COMMENT: That’s fine. The Dover playoff race has typically been blah (remember last year?), so if this shakes up the racing a bit by changing what is on the line, I’m down. And the track has seemed to move from May to June whenever the calendar dictates an extra off week (there must be a certain number of races to fit with Memorial Day and Labor Day, etc.), so no problems here.
MOVE: Final six playoff races remain the same.
COMMENT: I’m glad Homestead is still the championship race, because that’s such a great track to end the season. And I’m glad Talladega still isn’t an elimination race (it was already moved from that spot starting this year), because that was too wacky. Overall, everyone seems pretty comfortable with the last six races at that time of year, because there’s only so much NASCAR can do with the weather. So no issues here, except Texas should shave off 100 miles (hi, Eddie!).
MOVE: June off-week returns, Easter and August off-weeks stay.
COMMENT: Fans freaking HATE when people who work in NASCAR complain about how long the schedule is, and that’s fair. Drivers and crew members and media chose this profession and knew what to expect, right? But breaks are really nice when they are available — they keep people fresh — and I’m glad NASCAR kept them instead of trying to squeeze in a race on every weekend to somehow shorten the season.
OVERALL 2018 SCHEDULE GRADE: B.
COMMENT: I feel mostly positive about NASCAR’s schedule changes. Would it be better to have new venues, move the All-Star Race, add more short-track races and road courses? Yes, of course. But in terms of reasonable requests, working with the current lineup of tracks, there’s a lot to like here — particularly with the playoff changes (different tracks, road course, new races in first two rounds).