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Does NASCAR Need Less Road Courses?

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Last weekends race at Sonoma Raceway garnered mixed reviews from the fanbase. Some fans praised the fact that the lack of stage cautions allowed strategy to play out naturally. Others said the race was boring with little passing.

The and NASCAR’s general increase of road course racing in recent years has opened the question for some about whether or not NASCAR needs to cut back on road course racing. NASCAR now races on six road course races per year, a departure from previous years where NASCAR used to race on typically one or two per year up until recently.

Here is an objective look on the state of NASCAR racing on road courses. Does NASCAR need less road courses, more road courses, or is the current amount enough?

An Objective Look at the Road Course Racing Product

The complaint that most had regarding the race was that it was allegedly hard to pass. Well, Racing Reference actually keeps track of all of the green flag passes for each race, so how does Sonoma compare?

According to Racing Reference, the Sonoma race had 2,738 green flag passes, which is an average of 25.9 passes per lap. Only four races per season had more passes per lap than Sonoma being Daytona (66.3 per lap), Talladega (92.3 per lap), Circuit of the Americas (53.6 per lap), and Atlanta (26.8 per lap).

In terms of per-lap, Sonoma actually ranks towards the top in terms of passing under the green flag. Now, some of this data may be ballooned by the fact that alternate pit strategy caused passes, and it is uncertain how much of this data factors that in, but, these numbers are still interesting to look at.

For comparison, other races that were considered as “good” by the majority of the fanbase had less passes per lap than Sonoma. These races include Auto Club (21.7 per lap), Kansas (17.3 per lap), and Charlotte (13.5 per lap).

Obviously what constitutes a “Good race” is far more complicated than just how many passes there were, but the data shows that passing actually far more common than people may give it credit for. Case in point, Martin Truex Jr. who started eighth and drove to the front under green with multiple clean passes.

Regardless, the race also only featured two cautions. This meant that the field got more strung out, and there was less close racing. Long green flag runs can feel very dull especially when drivers just settle in to their position before the next pit stop.

Even if there is passing throughout the field, there was not much passing going on up front as the race went on. The TV broadcast tends to usually favor the stories up front rather than the passing through the field because that typically garners more interest to the average viewer. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. called the product “Dull” in his most recent podcast (2:48 mark of the video below)

Even though there were multiple passes per green flag lap, it was still half as many as was featured during the race at Circuit of the Americas, a race that many felt was a good race. That race itself also had two long green flag runs before a rash of cautions towards the end of the race.

Despite the end of the COTA race devolving into chaos, Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a good race?” poll features 72.5% of fans saying COTA was a good race. By comparison, Sonoma had 43.2% saying it was a good race. If COTA was considered a good race, then does the problem rest with Sonoma the race track rather than the Next-Gen road course package?

Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a good race?” poll from 2022 shows that four of the six road course races (Sonoma, Road America, Indianapolis, and the Charlotte Roval) were ranked 27th or worse out of the 38 races polled in 2022. The exceptions being COTA and Watkins Glen which ranked 13th and 2nd respectively.

Something is just not clicking with the road course product with fans. Regardless of how much passing is going on, it’s not appealing to fan, and there is data to back it up.

The Volume of Road Course Races

The Iceberg, Jaret Lundberg recently made a video entitled “NASCAR’s Road Course Problem.” In the video, he goes in depth as to why he feels there are too many road course races.

NASCAR has never been a series that has been known for road course racing. Even though NASCAR raced on road course, it has always been known as an oval track motorsport.

For most of its history, and particularly during the Modern era, there have only been one or two road course races per season. First it was two races per year at Riverside, then it was one race Watkins Glen and Sonoma each. In 2018, the Charlotte ROVAL joined the fray, NASCAR’s first new road course since Sonoma was added to the schedule in 1989.

Between 2020 and 2023, NASCAR has raced at a significant amount of new road courses. Specifically, adding the Daytona Road Course, the Indianapolis Road Course, Road America, Circuit of the Americas, and the Chicago Street Course. Now, NASCAR has six road course races per season, making up 1/6th of the schedule.

That is objectively a lot of road courses. Is that too many? It’s still the same volume as there is superspeedway type tracks (six races), less than intermediate tracks (13 races), and less than short tracks (eight races).

It’s far more even than in previous years, but, if the racing is not as popular with fans on road courses, do there need to be six? It seems that some insiders believe that cutting back on road course racing may happen.

What Will NASCAR Do?

Jordan Bianchi recently answered fan questions in his recent Mailbag post. It can be found on The Athletic. In that piece, Bianchi responded to a fans question regarding NASCAR’s schedule.

Bianchi reported earlier that he predicts that NASCAR will not race on Bristol Dirt next season, so he has some inside knowledge on where NASCAR is at in terms of the 2024 schedule. None of what he says is set in stone, but what he says on the topic of road courses does hold some merit. He mentions how NASCAR has much more schedule flexibility than in previous years, and, as a result, NASCAR can more easily leave tracks with not as good racing products.

Expect such fluidity to continue. In part because a number of fans (and drivers) believe NASCAR visits too many road courses annually, combined with the tepid racing, the expectation is that the 2024 schedule could feature fewer road courses with the strong possibility the Indianapolis race reverts back to its 2.5‐mile speedway. Also, don’t be surprised if there is a push for Speedway Motorsports to shift the fall Charlotte playoff race off the Roval to the 1.5‐mile oval.

Jordan Bianchi (The Athletic)

Now just because Bianchi says or expects that NASCAR could do this, it does not mean that NASCAR will or they should. However, it does show that NASCAR has the ability to adjust if they see fit. If the road course racing product produces enough of a bad name, then according to Bianchi, NASCAR cutting back on road courses could happen.

Conclusion

Should NASCAR cut back on road courses? That is not for me to ultimately say. However, the possibility is certainly out there.

The racing product on road courses is not a big of a hit with the fans as it once was. However, it’s obviously not an all-bad product. Time will tell whether or not NASCAR does so or not.

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Joshua Lipowski

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