NASCAR’s 2020 Cup Series schedule is a massive departure from tradition

Introduction

The schedule for the current season of the NASCAR Cup Series (known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for sponsorship reasons, the Monster Energy sponsorship of the series ends at the end of this season) preserved a lot of the traditional race dates (such as the 400-mile Daytona International Speedway race on the Fourth of July weekend and the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway being in late August) and, intentionally or not, minimizes potential conflicts with the double points IndyCar races (the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship finale at Laguna Seca) and the four men’s golf majors (the Masters Tournament, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, and the British Open).

The schedule for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series (series title sponsor, if any, to be determined) is probably the single most massive departure from tradition since the introduction of what is now known as the NASCAR playoffs in 2004 or, going even further back, the reduction of what was then the NASCAR Grand National schedule from 48 races to 31 races between the 1971 and 1972 seasons. While some of the traditional race dates are preserved, such as the Daytona 500 being the first full points race of the season and the Coca-Cola 600 on the Sunday evening of Memorial Day weekend, a lot of traditional race dates have been shuffled around. While the 2020 Cup schedule consists of 36 full-points races, as this year’s Cup schedule does, there are a massive amount of changes to the schedule for 2020 when compared to this year’s schedule.

The following sections will include my thoughts about the changes to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule in 2020.

West coast swing immediately follows Daytona 500

In 2019, the NASCAR west coast swing began on March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and included races on March 10 at ISM (Phoenix) Raceway and on March 17 at Auto Club (Fontana) Speedway. In 2020, the entire west coast swing has been shifted forward one week to begin on February 23 at Las Vegas, with the Fontana race moved forward two weeks to March 1, so that Phoenix retains its second-weekend-of-March date on March 8.

I’m not a big fan of the west coast swing starting the week following the Daytona 500, since that involves a very long trip across the country after the most prestigious race on the calendar for the teams, although it’s far from my least favorite change on the calendar.

Atlanta and Homestead move to March

A four-race southeastern swing following the west coast swing begins with the Atlanta Motor Speedway race scheduled for March 15, moving four weeks later in the calendar. This is a mostly good move by NASCAR, as this gives Atlanta a date at a time of the year where the weather would be expected to be more favorable than in late February, although a minor quibble that I have with the Atlanta date is that, if golf’s The Players Championship is scheduled for the third weekend in March like it was this year, that would create a conflict between a Cup Series race and what is generally considered the most prestigious non-major men’s golf tournament, held only a few hundred miles apart. A much more controversial move is the movement of the Homestead-Miami Speedway event from the championship finale slot in mid-November to an early regular season slot on March 22. Atlanta and Homestead join Texas Motor Speedway and the day race at Bristol, which keep their slots as the seventh and eighth full-points races of the season, to form a four-race southeastern swing.

While the concept of a southeastern swing is a good concept for NASCAR, the Homestead race is in, in my opinion, an awful position on the calendar, as that is expected to (unless there’s changes to the IMSA and NHRA calendars for 2020) conflict with two other high-profile auto racing events in Florida: the NHRA Gatornationals drag racing meet and the IMSA 12 Hours of Sebring sports car endurance race, both of which are prestigious events within their respective sanctioning bodies, meaning that the Homestead Cup race would be the third-most important auto racing event going on in Florida at that time, which will probably result in low attendance, and possibly low TV ratings as well.

April Richmond race moves back one week to accommodate Easter

As is traditionally the case, the first off-week of the season is the weekend of Easter, which is a week earlier in 2020 than this year. To account for this, the April race at Richmond Raceway in 2020 is simply moved a week later in the calendar, to April 19, which also involves a shift from a Saturday night race this year to a Sunday race (unclear what time of day) in 2020. This also has the effect of NASCAR scheduling a Cup Series off-week the weekend of the first of the four men’s golf majors, Masters Tournament, whose traditional second Sunday of April final round coincides with Easter Sunday in 2020.

This is easily the least dramatic change on the NASCAR calendar for 2020, and there’s nothing objectionable about it, since it preserves the traditional Easter off-week.

Martinsville finally gets a true night race, May Kansas race moves to after Coca-Cola 600

The Martinsville Speedway spring race that was displaced by Homestead’s move from November to March moves to the night of May 9, meaning that Martinsville will host a true night race for the Cup Series for the first time ever in 2020. This displaces the spring Kansas Speedway race that is scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend this year, which will move to a Sunday slot on May 31 in 2020.

This is easily my favorite change on the calendar, as the Mother’s Day weekend slot will actually have an intriguing race on the NASCAR calendar for a change.

Pocono doubleheader biggest change as part of packed June calendar in 2020

Five races in four weekends will take place for the Cup Series in the month of June in 2020, beginning with Michigan International Speedway retaining its non-traditional first-weekend-of-June slot, which is June 7 in 2020. A significant conflict between NASCAR and golf will occur on Father’s Day weekend, with the Sonoma Raceway road course race being held opposite the the 2020 U.S. Open golf championship on June 14, with Fox and FS1 holding the broadcast rights to the U.S. Open and either Fox or FS1 holding the broadcast rights to the Cup race that weekend as well. The June Chicagoland race moves up one week to June 21. A significant change to the NASCAR calendar for 2020 is two races in consecutive days, June 27 and June 28, at Pocono Raceway, the first race of that doubleheader being the first Saturday afternoon Cup Series race in two decades (the previous one being the 2000 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

The biggest issue I have with the June portion of the 2020 schedule is the Pocono doubleheader. Given that the Pocono races are often affected by inclement weather, that could result in a logistical nightmare for NASCAR if significant weather delays or postponements impact one or both Pocono races, although NASCAR probably didn’t have much of a choice but to schedule a doubleheader at Pocono for a reason that I’ll explain in the next section of the blog post. The other issue I have is the conflict between the Sonoma race and the U.S. Open golf championship, which could result in low TV ratings for the Sonoma race.

The Summer Olympics and NASCAR messing with tradition cause significant changes to July and August schedule for NASCAR

Except for wildfires in Florida forcing NASCAR to postpone the 1998 400-miler at Daytona from July to October, NASCAR has always held a Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona International Speedway since the speedway opened in 1959. That tradition will come to an end in 2020, as the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will move to the Fourth of July weekend, on July 5. To accommodate the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan (with a 14-hour time difference between U.S. Central Daylight Time and Japan Standard Time), two off-weeks have been scheduled for the Cup Series in 2020 for the last week of July and the first week of August. This results in the August Michigan race being held after the conclusion of the Summer Olympics on August 9, although NBC would likely air the 2020 Olympic closing ceremony, which would be expected to be held during the early-to-mid-morning hours U.S. Central Daylight Time on August 9 (corresponding to same-day primetime hours in Japan), on an extended tape delay in U.S. primetime, thus occurring before, but airing after, the Michigan NASCAR race, so that a program like the Sunday morning political talk show Meet the Press is not the lead-out program after the Olympic closing ceremony. The off-weeks to accommodate the Olympics result in the Watkins Glen International race being moved back two weeks to August 16. In a change unrelated to the Brickyard 400/Coke Zero 400 realignment and the Summer Olympics, Dover International Speedway’s fall race moves out of the playoffs and into the regular season on August 23. The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona moves out of its traditional Fourth of July weekend spot on the calendar and, in 2020, will be the regular season finale on August 29.

As the Brickyard lacks floodlights for night racing like Daytona has, unless there’s a late-morning start time for the Brickyard 400 like what was typically done at Daytona in the years prior to that facility being floodlit, the Brickyard 400 could be held in nightmarishly hot weather conditions that would be very uncomfortable for drivers and fans alike. I don’t suspect that NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are looking to get rid of the Brickyard 400 after 2020, as much as I’d like to see a track like Eldora, Iowa, Gateway, Mid-Ohio, or Laguna Seca get a Cup Series date in the future. However, the 400-miler in Daytona is strongly associated with the Fourth of July weekend, so moving it to late August is a major break from NASCAR tradition that I’m not a fan of at all, and, even worse, late August is near the height of the North Atlantic hurricane season, and it’s not clear what would happen in terms of playoff race scheduling, the playoff format, etc. if the Daytona race had to be postponed to another weekend. I do like the fact that NASCAR is trying to avoid as much conflict with the Olympics as possible, given that NBC is expected to plan a massive amount of Olympic coverage for next year across multiple networks (and even possibly send a lot of their on-air personalities normally seen during their NASCAR coverage to Japan to cover the Olympics), although this does cause some scheduling problems for NASCAR, such as what probably led to the Pocono races being scheduled as a doubleheader despite my dislike for that concept.

Massive changes to the NASCAR playoffs calendar

Next year’s NASCAR playoffs begin and end slightly earlier than this year’s NASCAR playoffs, and there are a ton of changes to the playoffs schedule.

The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway retains its Labor Day weekend slot on the calendar, but that slot on the calendar, which is September 6 in 2020, is moved into the opening race of the playoffs instead of being the second-to-last regular season race like it is this year. The Bristol Night Race, displaced by Dover being moved out of the playoffs and into a late regular-season slot, becomes a playoff race, the final race of the Round of 16 portion of the playoffs, on September 19. The fall Las Vegas race, which will open the Round of 16 of the playoffs this year, will open the Round of 12 next year with a September 27 date. The Round of 12 finale becomes the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval race in 2020 on October 11. The fall Kansas race opens the Round of 8 in 2020 on October 18, followed by Texas on October 25, followed by Martinsville on November 1. The championship finale will be held at Phoneix on November 8, a week earlier than this year’s season finale at Homestead.

There are a few aspects of the NASCAR playoffs schedule in 2020 that I have an unfavorable opinion of. The first of these is the Bristol Night Race being moved from its traditional late-August date into the playoffs, as that’s another example of NASCAR needlessly messing with tradition. The second of these is the November Martinsville race; it would not be unimaginable for snow to fall during a November weekend in southwestern Virginia. On the other hand, I actually do like the concept of Phoenix hosting the championship finale, as the season finale becomes somewhat shorter in length (312 miles as opposed to 400.5 miles), which might make for a better race for the championship among the four championship contenders.