NASCAR is finally changing up its playoff schedule.
The 2018 playoff schedule features three tracks new to the final 10 races of the Cup Series season. It’s the largest schedule change since NASCAR introduced the Chase — now the Playoffs — in 2004. And it was long overdue.
New Hampshire is gone, replaced by Las Vegas. Chicago is gone too, and while Las Vegas has its date to start the playoffs, it was replaced by Richmond. Charlotte’s still there, but instead of the 1.5-mile oval, the fall race will be run on a 13-turn 2.4-mile track that’s part infield road course and part oval. It’ll be the first time NASCAR has run a race on a hybrid track like what Charlotte will have in store.
The Charlotte change satiates a growing and loud portion of the NASCAR fanbase that’s desired more road course racing. The Cup Series’ road races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen have become two of the most entertaining races of the season. But neither occupied a spot in the playoffs, which competes directly with the NFL for Sunday television viewers.
[Related: Brickyard 400 moves to September in 2018]
“The project that is the roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway wasn’t something that was just thrown together overnight,” NASCAR vice president Jim Cassidy said. “It was thought out by a number of designers. There was a significant investment that has gone into getting that portion of the track and the roval into the shape that it is today.”
The Charlotte race will also serve as the final race of the first round of the playoffs.
Chicago had become a worthy opening race for the playoffs because of its worn-out pavement and penchant for unpredictability. No one saw Tony Stewart winning there en route to five Chase wins in 2011, Kevin Harvick cutting a tire and finishing 42nd in 2015 or the Hendrick cars of Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott leading a bunch of laps in 2016 after Johnson entered the Chase as an underdog of sorts.
But adding Richmond to the playoffs at Chicago’s expense is a fair trade. The short track, which has previously served as the final race of the regular season, has provided fantastic multi-groove racing in its day races in recent years. But the trade isn’t as good as it could be. NASCAR said on Tuesday that both of Richmond’s 2018 races will be at night.
The New Hampshire for Vegas trade was already known. Speedway Motorsports Inc., owns both tracks and had long been pining for a second date in Las Vegas. New Hampshire, with its lack of passing and importance of track position, was the obvious candidate to lose a race to Vegas.
Vegas, the site of the Cup Series’ postseason banquet, also gives NASCAR a chance to go crazy with the playoff hype entering the race. You can bet that level of possible promotion was at the forefront of many executives’ heads as the schedule was designed.
Logistically, however, the move to put Vegas at the front of the playoffs is a bit of a headscratcher. Because most of the Cup field is based in Charlotte, NASCAR has grouped together the spring Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California, races to make it easier on teams. With Texas and Phoenix as the 34th and 35th races of the season, it would seem much easier to put Vegas as the 32nd race of the season to keep weary teams on the west side of the Mississippi River for three consecutive weeks.
Instead, teams will go from Indianapolis on Sept. 9 to Las Vegas on Sept. 16 and to Richmond on Sept. 23 next season.
But complaining about travel times is a small issue given the leap that NASCAR took with the schedule, especially when you consider the three playoff track changes from 2017 to 2018 nearly matches the total of playoff changes NASCAR had made from 2004 to 2017. The playoff schedule had become stagnant and given NASCAR’s standard of staying pat, just one change in addition to the inclusion of Las Vegas would have been seen as a massive overhaul.
Of course, there’s more to keeping NASCAR relevant than changing a few races in the playoffs. But the sanctioning body is continuing to show its newfound flexibility. That should serve it well as it can and should add new tracks to the Cup schedule when the current rights agreements expire after the 2020 season.
– – – – – – –