NASCAR will hit the road for its first race in 2021, part of a schedule shake-up that starts at Daytona International Speedway.
The track announced several changes to the start of the annual racing season Wednesday. They include running the exhibition Busch Clash on the 3.56-mile road course that winds through the Daytona infield and packing seven races as well as Daytona 500 pole qualifying into a six-day span.
The tweaks eliminate two traditional “dark days” at the track during Speedweeks and should provide a better fan experience leading into NASCAR’s premier event, the Daytona 500.
“This has been in the works with NASCAR for a while,” track President Chip Wile told The Associated Press. “We really want to continue to evolve. Obviously, there’s a ton of fan interest around road course racing. We’ve had a road course here since 1959, and we feel like what better way to showcase the property and differentiate that race even more from the Daytona 500 than running the road course under the lights?”
NASCAR teams have pushed for a shorter season for years, arguing that the 12-week offseason is too short given how little downtime there is during the racing calendar.
The sanctioning body is expected to make significant changes to its 2021 schedule, which could include more short tracks, midweek races and doubleheaders. Overhauling Speedweeks is the first of what are expected to be many new looks ahead.
The week will shape up like this: The Clash will run Tuesday night, Feb. 9, followed the next day by Daytona 500 pole qualifying, which sets the front row for “The Great American Race.” Qualifying races that set the rest of the field, called the Duels, will remain a Thursday staple and will be run under the lights for the eighth consecutive year.
The Truck series season opener will run Friday night, as usual, with the ARCA and second-tier Xfinity Series openers running as a doubleheader Saturday. Practices, qualifying runs and Daytona 500 media day will be sprinkled in throughout the week.
Pole qualifying, the Clash and the ARCA race typically run the weekend before the 500. But NASCAR is starting the Daytona 500 a week earlier than normal in 2021. The featured race will run on Valentine’s Day, one week after the Super Bowl.
Since it was unlikely NASCAR would go head-to-head against the Super Bowl, it seemed as if the obvious choice would be to cram Speedweeks into a single week.
“We’re not condensing the schedule,” Wile said. “We’re being more efficient. We’ll have the same number of track activities and track days. We’re just doing it consecutively instead of over two weekends.”
Traditionalists surely will gripe. After all, some welcomed the allure of spending two weeks in sunny Florida, where drivers often can be spotted at Disney World, the beach and other tourist spots.
“I’d miss it,” driver Austin Dillon said before the 500, anticipating changes. “I like being down here for this long. I enjoy this week. I think it’s a great start to our season.”
Wile believes starting the week on the road course could prompt more drivers to enter the Rolex 24 at Daytona, a twice-around-the-clock sports car race that kicks off the IMSA season. Reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Busch drove the race in January. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson also have Rolex experience on the road course.
There are three road courses on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule: Sonoma Raceway in June, Watkins Glen International in August and Charlotte Motor Speedway in October. Drivers are accustomed to turning left, which makes road courses one of the most daunting challenges in NASCAR. Daytona should be no different.
“It is a very unique road course,” Wile said. “It’s fast, and it’s technical. How much is it going to take to stop these 3,400-pound race cars going into Turn 1 after coming out of the Bus Stop and have half a lap to get up to speed? It’s going to be a really wild race.”