Big changes just around the corner for NASCAR
Racing is all about the view up ahead. Any racer who spends too much time staring into the rearview mirror will end up plowing into the wall. Likewise, any racer who keeps their eyes limited to the view off the front of their own hood will lose sight of the big picture and no doubt find themselves stuffed into the rear deck lid of the car right in front of them.
The best racers can stay focused on all of the above while also keeping one eye way out ahead, into the upcoming turns, no matter how far away they might be. That’s how they anticipate their next moves and ultimately find the best potential path back to the front.
Welcome to the eve of NASCAR 2020, where the green flag hasn’t yet dropped on the first points-paying race of this season, but everyone already is talking about next season.
“The nature of this sport is that it is always in transition,” explains Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion. He’s not wrong. His seven titles were won in three distinctly different generations of stock cars and three different points systems, with modifications made to both the cars and the systems as the years went by. “But I don’t think any of us have seen a list of potentially giant changes like they might have coming in 2021.”
Note that he said “they” and not “we.” That’s because he is one of the items on that list of changes. Johnson, arguably the greatest Cup Series driver to ever yank on a helmet, will be hanging up that helmet as a full-time racer in November.
But between now and then, NASCAR is expected to roll out a parade of revisions, modifications, alterations and whatever other kind of -ations one can think of.
The 2021 “Next Gen” car, already tested multiple times over the winter, will be put back into action at least four times on four very different racetracks — California, Atlanta, Bristol and Dover — between early March and early May. Those are the official NASCAR tests. Teams also will be allowed to run their new rides through paces during a meaty late-season gantlet of a dozen sessions on six different circuits.
The stated goals are for the new machines to look more like their street counterparts and also to make them cheaper to build, seeking to cut costs for current teams and also lure new auto manufacturers to join Ford, Chevy and Toyota. On Wednesday, Kyle Busch expressed doubts about those cost-cutting claims, saying the new cars would cost four times what it took to build the current cars. NASCAR said he was wrong.
No matter what the bottom line is, the Next Gen ride is expected to bring with it a dealership’s worth of new features, including some sort of yet-to-be-determined hybrid component, single-lug nut wheels, and a refueling hose that would replace the venerable big red gas cans.
New team rosters
All of those changes to the car and bottom line are also expected to trigger significant changes in how pit crews and car builders do their jobs. All of that likely means fewer employees needed, at the race shop during the week and over the wall on Sundays. As one Cup crew chief texted to ESPN.com on Wednesday morning: “That part’s gonna hurt. I’m already telling guys to start brainstorming what to do to stay … or what they wanna do after racing.”
New driver rosters
As for the those on the other side the pit wall, Johnson’s post-2020 departure could start the most significant series of free-agency Silly Season movement that the sport has seen in quite a while. With three youngsters already in the building, will Rick Hendrick go shopping for a veteran to slide into the No. 48? And if he does, what seat would that vet’s move open … and then what seat would that move open?
It is worth noting that Kyle Larson, long saddled with “What do you think he could do at a top-shelf team?” speculation, is in the final year of his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. The Toyota conglomerate of title contenders at Joe Gibbs Racing is feeling crowded, with Busch Clash winner Erik Jones on a one-year deal and wunderkind Christopher Bell on the rise. Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola will also enter 2020 at the end of their contracts.
At Wednesday’s Daytona 500 media day, Jones confessed that the future was definitely on his mind. “I have no intention of leaving my role [at Joe Gibbs Racing]. But it’s definitely a crazy year. There’s a lot of things happening, a lot of things in motion, I guess, already for people. But not really for me.”
New schedule, new tracks
For years, there has been a groundswell within the Cup garage calling for the delivery of a long-promised overhaul of the race schedule. The past two seasons have seen some rearranging of dates (Homestead is out as season finale host, replaced by Phoenix) and the introduction of new ideas at old places (Charlotte introducing the Roval, Pocono Raceway’s Saturday/Sunday doubleheader, Martinsville Speedway moving its spring race to night).
But 2021 will bring an expiration to current racetrack sanctioning agreements. Paired with the recent privatization and merger of NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation, it all means much more freedom to make much bigger moves.
Since being named NASCAR president in September 2018, Steve Phelps has been very open about his desire to inject more short-track racing into the sport’s speedway-heavy schedule. That’s why Phoenix is now the season finale, while Bristol and Martinsville are now postseason cutoff races.
(By the way, all you need to know about the scope of next season can be found in this ESPN.com profile on Phelps, in which he was already talking about 2021 … and it was only halfway through 2019!)
Rumors continue to run rampant about the likes of 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway finally making its way onto the Cup calendar, along with the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, which hasn’t hosted a Cup Series race since 1984. The road courses of Road America and Circuit of the Americas in Austin also have received attention, along with a lot of other, wackier ideas. Phelps has stated that he wants to have the 2021 schedule, whatever it may end up being, released in early April.
“We have been here so many times before, promised big calendar changes,” says Kurt Busch, about to begin his 20th Cup Series season. “We all agree that we need new racetracks and new markets. More short tracks. Rovals, street races, shorter races. I say try it all, man.”
Suddenly, the 31-race winner sounds like he might be talking about more than merely the schedule. He’s talking about everything that might be rolling out of Turn 4 and taking the green flag one year from now.
“As long as I have been in this series, 20 years now, we’ve been saying we were going to try it all. But we’ve never really done it all. And what we’ve been doing, maybe hasn’t worked as well as we want it to. So, hell yeah, man. Do it all.”