CONCORD, N.C. — If you’re a follower of NASCAR’s top three series, you might want to relish the month of November.
This will be the last one that will look like anything you’ve seen over the past however-many years.
For the first time in 19 years, the series’ 2020 championships won’t end with a winner-take-all event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. They’ll end in the desert at Arizona’s ISM Raceway (which to me will forever be known as Phoenix Int’l Raceway).
That is going to be, in a word, weird.
It’s not weird because I think it’s a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong. Tradition is something I revere, like the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend, Daytona as the opening event of the NASCAR season and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on Labor Day weekend.
But sometimes you need to shake things up, and this is one of those times.
The winner-take-all event on a 1.5-mile oval in a traditionally warm climate near the end of November made sense. As a veteran of the second race of the season being at Richmond (Va.) Raceway in the middle of February, I’m all for warm-weather racing whenever possible. Nobody likes chattering teeth and frost bite while trying to line-score a 400-lap race from pit road.
Changing the schedule is a good way to generate new excitement and that is the name of the game these days.
Plus, Homestead had become sort of a one-trick pony: Rip the fence or run middle of the pack. In a winner-take-all format, you’d better be able to run inches off the wall or you’re not going to be the one covered in confetti and Gatorade. The one-mile ISM Raceway is a horse of a different color.
Wide-open, short-track racing? In the desert? Count me in.
When the season finale was at Atlanta Motor Speedway or Ontario Motor Speedway, it was a battle of attrition. The points were king. Get more of them and you’ll win no matter where you finish.
Winner-take-all? Better bring your big-boy britches and get busy, because it’s no-holds-barred.
ISM Raceway, with the renovations made and the layout changed, is more than up to the task of replacing Homestead as the season-ending venue. More action, faster lap times and more strategy are always good things.
NASCAR, as any entertainment-oriented pastime does, must deal with ever-shrinking attention spans and a much more crowded life than in years past. Used to be, people had four hours to devote to a race on the weekend. Now, four hours is an eternity. There’s too much to do, places to go, people to see (on-screen most of the time) and memes to digest.
Shorter is better in today’s world.
Still, there was a lot invested in the season-ending weekend for NASCAR. All three national series crowning a champion with three showdown races in three nights? That’s a recipe for success, and NASCAR baked it up for a good long while in South Florida.
Phoenix is hip and happening, though the ocean isn’t right next door. However, there is plenty to do.
The schedule change means NASCAR is shaking things up to make it work better in times that are vastly different from even 10 years ago. Over the years, the sanctioning body has been slower to react to change than it once was.
Now that NASCAR and ISC are finally becoming one entity and SMI is going private, there’ll be more changes like this in much quicker fashion than before.
No matter what, the competition aspects of the series finale weekend will have an extra level of hype at ISM Raceway. Things happen quicker, points will swing faster and one’s racing luck will play out at a lightning clip. The format is solid; four drivers enter, one driver leaves as the champion. That’s enough to make it interesting in many different areas.
Still, there was nothing like getting off the airplane in Miami, grabbing the rental car and getting down to Homestead had a familiar feeling. There’s nothing like traffic in South Florida — except for traffic in pretty much every other major city in the country.
Phoenix will be no different in that regard, but the scenery will be different.
That’s the main thing here. Different is good, every now and then.