NASCAR unveiled its 2020 schedule on Tuesday, marking the most impactful changes in years. Here are 15 of the biggest changes, ranked in order of best to worst.
1. Martinsville will decide who goes to the final four
If you thought the fall Martinsville race was intense before, when it was the opening race of the final round, just wait until next year. The Nov. 1 race at Martinsville is going to represent the final chance to make it to the championship race at Homestead — er, Phoenix! — and you can bet the aggression levels will be off the charts. There might be a legitimate brawl on pit road after this one.
2. Martinsville gets a night race
Helllllllllll yes! This is a great move and has been long anticipated ever since the track installed lights. A Saturday night race at Martinsville (May 9) should make for quite a spectacle — and tickets might make for an easy gift for Mother’s Day (the day after the race) if you have a NASCAR-loving mama.
3. Pocono Doubleheader weekend
This is innovative and smart. Major kudos to whoever was involved in pulling this plan off, because obviously it took some give-and-take between the track, NBC and NASCAR. Two Pocono races in the span of eight weeks have seemed excessive for years now, so it’s nice to see both Pocono Cup races in a single weekend (June 27 and June 28). That’s a ton of value for fans, a unique demand on drivers and teams and a huge unknown as to how it will all unfold.
4. Atlanta moves toward warmer weather
Poor Atlanta had seemed punished with its race date for the last few years, but now NASCAR will start the West Coast Swing right after the Daytona 500. Maybe three weeks won’t make a huge difference, but the odds of a nicer weekend certainly increase by putting it on March 15 instead of Feb. 24, as it was this year.
5. Bristol Night Race as Round 1 cutoff race
Having Bristol as a playoff race (Sept. 19) is a cool concept and there’s going to be a lot on the line given it’s the end of Round 1. The big worry would be whether this detracts from the traditional Bristol Night Race date — which obviously sold out for decades but has recently taken a hit. Now kids will be back in school and it will be up against college football. Racing-wise, though, it should be a must-watch.
6. West Coast Swing after Daytona
The order of the races is changed a bit — Fontana (March 1) now goes in front of Phoenix (March 8), but everything is moved up a week starting with Las Vegas (Feb. 23). This is a good thing overall, but there are some potential weather concerns. That weird Vegas snowstorm would have happened during race weekend this year, and there could still be some rain at Fontana (weepers!) as Southern California exits winter. NASCAR has to go somewhere, though, and it’s better to try their luck with the West Coast instead of Atlanta.
7. Vegas playoff race exits the extreme heat
There’s some potential relief here. The Vegas playoff race, in mid-September for its first two years, will now be two weeks later on Sept. 27 (though the track had advertised the date on posters as October). As a tradeoff, Vegas loses the playoff opener — but is now the opening race of the second round. So there won’t be the same pre-playoff hype, but still a pretty solid deal for the track.
8. Olympic off-weeks
NBC and its networks are broadcasting the Olympics again next summer, so NASCAR chose to accommodate its TV partner by installing back-to-back off weekends (July 26 and Aug. 2). It’s sort of weird to not have any Cup racing at that time of the summer, but it’s also such a long season (that will only end one week earlier, despite the schedule shakeup) that it could provide a nice break for drivers, crews and fans alike while also rejuvenating everyone for the final push.
9. Round 2 of the playoffs
Wow, check out this lineup of races for the second round: Las Vegas (Sept. 27), Talladega (Oct. 4), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 11). Yes, two wild card races in the same round. That really has the potential to knock out a championship-caliber driver or team, which isn’t ideal in the competition sense. But it certainly makes for drama, and we’ll all be talking about that round of the playoffs all year long as drivers scramble to give themselves a buffer with playoff points. Your view of this round comes down to how you feel about the playoff concept in general, I’m guessing.
10. Daytona as the regular season cutoff race
Sooooooo many fans are going to be angry about Daytona losing its traditional July 4 Weekend date. I get it. Another tradition gone, this one dating back to when the track opened in 1959 (!!!). That’s tough to swallow. On the other hand, Daytona as the regular season cutoff race (Aug. 29) is intriguing. If a driver hasn’t made the playoffs by Race No. 26, should they really be upset if the Big One ruins their shot? It has the potential to be a cool last-chance type race. I just wish it didn’t mean another loss of tradition. (But hey, at least NASCAR backed off the possibility of not starting the season with the Daytona 500. Phew.)
11. Dover loses playoff race
This stinks for Dover and I feel bad for them, but I guess sacrifices had to be made. Dover’s second race now goes from early October to Aug. 23. There’s not really a lot to say about this one, but it was a change in the schedule, so I had to rank it.
12. Southern 500 opens the playoffs
The Southern 500 is one of NASCAR’s most prestigious races — maybe second only to the Daytona 500 now that the Brickyard has gotten watered down by its constant date movement and lack of crowds. So having Darlington open the playoffs? That means the race winner might get out of his car in victory lane and say, “I’m so happy we’re locked into Round 2!” Shouldn’t the Southern 500 — the SOUTHERN 500! — be able to stand on its own? That said, I assume NASCAR was in a box here if it wanted to shorten the season by a week and still be able to let Darlington keep the Labor Day date. So maybe it couldn’t be avoided.
13. Homestead loses championship, moves to random date in March
I absolutely hate this. Homestead is the perfect intermediate track and has consistently produced classic championship races. There’s been no better place to end the season. “Homestead” has become synonymous with “championship” in NASCAR. Now Homestead has not only lost the championship race, but isn’t even in the playoffs. It’s March 22, between Atlanta and Texas. The weather should still be decent, judging by the recent news reports about the chaotic Spring Break crowds overrunning Miami Beach. But it’s a bummer to see such a great track lose its importance on the NASCAR calendar and become just another race.
14. Indianapolis hosts July 4 Weekend race for Brickyard 400
Last year, we were told Indianapolis needed to be the regular season finale in September to get away from the unbearable Indiana summer weather. Now the race is back in the summer — on July 5, of all dates (a Sunday afternoon race). It will have the humidity of a Daytona July race, just without the beach or attractive vacation spot for race fans.
15. Phoenix will host NASCAR championship weekend
If Homestead had to lose the championship race, for whatever reason, was anyone out there stumping for Phoenix as the finale? Vegas or Fontana…maybe. But Phoenix? Look, the track renovation was great and the infield looks cool. But the racing at Phoenix, aside from a couple exciting laps on restarts, doesn’t exactly scream “championship.” In addition, this is a series with 15 races out of 36 races contested on intermediate tracks and only three contested on flat 1-mile ovals. And now the championship will be one of the latter. The plus side would be if this started a new trend of changing the finale every year — but NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said the plan is to try it at Phoenix for awhile and see how it goes. So it might turn out Phoenix ends up as the new championship race for years to come.