The 2014 Sprint Cup schedule is already set in stone, and it looks nearly identical to the one drivers ran this year. But, with next year slated to the be the last for the sport’s current crop of broadcast partners before it begins its massive $8 billion+ deal with Fox and NBC in 2015, many are expecting a significant shakeup to mark the beginning of the new deal, chief among those, a big schedule remix. Since changing the schedule a great deal would require a lot of cooperation among many different groups, as well as an announcement far enough in advance for fans who often base trips around the time events are usually held at their favorite track, if discussions are happening for 2015, they’re happening now.
With that in mind, there’s one major change that needs to go down to truly give the sport a boost when it heads in to 2015: get the finale out of Miami.
Homestead-Miami Speedway is a great track, and since the flatness of its early years was removed in favor of progressive banking, it’s become an interesting race to watch, with drivers taking a multitude of different lines around the circuit, from the daredevil, inches-from-the-wall-rim-riding of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch to Jimmie Johnson’s glued-to-the-bottom-line approach he took during this year’s finale in an attempt to stay out of trouble. But, despite all that, it’s still an intermediate track, one of the countless 1.5-mile tracks that make up a large part of the Sprint Cup schedule. Granted, the series only visits the track once during the year, unlike the two trips it makes to most other intermediate tracks, but it’s basically just a small variant of what we see already see a lot of throughout the year.
The finale is an opportunity to play up two huge stories at once: the culmination of the championship battle, and the race itself as a standalone entity. Obviously, the title hunt is the bigger story, but apart from some mildly entertaining racing, the event alone usually doesn’t offer much to write home about. So, assuming NASCAR doesn’t go with new structure of rotating the finale each year (which isn’t likely, considering the aforementioned scheduling pressures), here are the five tracks most suited to take over the duties of the final race, listed in order from “Dear Lord, do this now” to “Eh, it’s still better than Homestead.”
Phoenix International Raceway is a baffling track in many ways, from its backward tri-oval layout (the start/finish line is located on the only straightaway as opposed to the dogleg on the opposite side like most tracks) to the newly removed grassy apron on the back dogleg that now serves as a location for drivers to kamikaze dive down onto in an attempt to gain position to the “short track masquerading as a superspeedway” vibe it gives off. And yet, both races at the track in 2013 were magnificent, from the somewhat slower spring race (that suffered no doubt from being the first non-superspeedway race ever for the Gen 6 race car) that saw Carl Edwards take home the trophy, to the bonkers penultimate dash that saw Matt Kenseth’s hopes disappear thanks to a bad day and Jimmie Johnson truly showcase his talent via saving his car from near disaster on two separate occasions. Even better, the capacity at Phoenix is much, much lower than most tracks, so selling out the place for a finale is a given and would offer a hell of a sight, from fans camped out on the hill in turns 3 and 4 to the beautiful mountain backdrop.
Thunder Valley has suffered from hard times in recent years, going from an unquestionable sellout time and time again to half-full after a repave to progressive banking took away the beating and banging that defined the track. The circuit is now an odd mixture of both styles after a portion of the top groove was ground down and serves as a bumper drivers to stay right next to during the race. But, it’s still an iconic piece of NASCAR’s history and still puts on a damn good show. And bringing the last race of the season to Bristol might be just the kick in the pants the old gal needs to start selling out once again.
Starting and ending the season at Daytona is an intriguing concept many have brought up on numerous occasions. While there’s no question that Daytona is steeped in history and has put on a ton of fireworks over the years, I’m afraid that ending on a restrictor plate track is too gimmicky, and if a close championship battle were to come into the finale and be pissed away for one driver because of the ever-present danger of getting caught up in somebody else’s mess, it’d cheapen the whole thing. Having Talladega at the midway point of the Chase is already somewhat risky, since drivers have less control of their fate at tracks like that, but it does lend itself to plenty of “survive Talladega and you’re set” marketing. While I don’t personally hope it happens, ending the season at Daytona wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Hold the phone, end the season on a road course?! Think about it, drivers are tested constantly by the left turns that make up the NASCAR season, but twice a year, we make ‘em go right. If you truly want to call yourself the best and deserving of a championship, then show it right at the end of the year. Go right and left on your way to a title. That is, if you’re man (or woman) enough to do it. A road course finale will never happen, but it would shake the season right the hell up and provide drama for the ages.
The other of NASCAR’s two shortest tracks would do just as good of a job as Bristol at closing out the season. There has been no progressive banking added to this track, and nudging your opponent out of the way is still one of the best ways to gain positions. For Jimmie Johnson haters, this is one of the worst ideas in the world, since he’s owned the place in recent years, but for everybody else, it’d be another surefire way to end the season with a bang (and more than likely, with a sellout).
NASCAR’s primary focus right now is improving the racing for the upcoming 2014 season, but the wheels are turning for how to make their move to Fox and NBC a noteworthy event. We should see plenty of changes aimed at re-energizing the sport, and hopefully, a change of venue in the finale is one of those moves.