Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – The release of NASCAR’s radically different 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule offers a feast of competition that should please race fans itching for something new.
Most notably, the season finale, which has been contested at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2002, moves from ocean sands to desert sands at ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
“We look forward to an exciting finish to our season here at ISM Raceway in 2020,” said NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton, who was in Phoenix on Tuesday to make the announcement.
After the Feb. 16 season-opening Daytona 500, the West Coast Swing moves up a week, with Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosting the series on Feb. 23, Auto Club Speedway becoming the Cup venue on Mar. 1 and ISM Raceway concluding the swing a week later.
That moves Atlanta Motor Speedway to the fifth position on the schedule and into a more favorable weather window than was characteristic of its recent late February dates.
“Atlanta has played a great role for us, but, obviously, the weather has been a challenge,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
“So being able to go to Las Vegas for that second event I think will be terrific for our West Coast Swing, terrific for our fans out West to go to a marquee destination, and that allows for Atlanta to move back down the schedule a little bit in better weather.”
Those changes are just the beginning. The schedule that follows the first five races features some dramatic departures from the past few years. The Martinsville Speedway date moves to May 9, the week before the All-Star Race at Charlotte.
Yes, that’s a Saturday race on Mother’s Day weekend—and it will be run under the lights.
“Ultimately, in the long run, I’d love to see a night race there,” five-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin said 10 days before the schedule was announced, “but I’d love to see it in the summer.”
May 9 isn’t quite summer, but the new date should produce the warmer conditions Hamlin said were necessary for the track to take rubber and produce exciting racing.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” said O’Donnell, who also acknowledged Ben Kennedy, NASCAR managing director of operations and international development, as instrumental in effecting the schedule changes. “You look at Martinsville—we just had a terrific race there. It’s a short track, which fans love… There’s been more and more clamoring from the fans, ‘Hey, can we race Cup there under the lights?’
“We were able to deliver, so Saturday night is going to be terrific.”
The summer race at Daytona International Speedway and the regular-season cutoff race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are switching places on the schedule, with Indianapolis moving to July 5 and Daytona to Aug. 29. Hence, for the first time, a superspeedway will host the last-chance race for Playoff hopefuls.
“When we looked at Daytona moving to that last regular-season race, we also knew that July 4th is a really important weekend for us as an industry. We looked at what other tracks could fill that void, and Indianapolis popped up immediately.
“It’s a great venue for us to host July 4th. It’s an iconic venue and an iconic weekend.”
Pocono Raceway will still host two Cup events, but they’ll take place on the same weekend. In a jam-packed month of June, the Pocono doubleheader is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, June 27-28.
“When you go to Pocono, it’s always packed,” O’Donnell said. “There’s always a great camping atmosphere. You’re going to have potentially five races going on during the weekend with back-to-back Cup events. It’s going to be fun. We love Pocono, the industry’s really going to embrace it, and I think it will be terrific for the fans.”
The 2020 calendar also features a substantial shakeup in Playoff races, and not just the Championship 4 event.
Moving into the Playoffs for the first time, Darlington Raceway will kick off the final 10 races on Sept. 6. After a trip to Richmond Raceway on Sept. 12, the series moves to Bristol Motor Speedway, another Playoff newcomer, for the second of back-to-back night races.
Las Vegas (which moves to a cooler late-September date), Talladega and the Charlotte Roval make up the second elimination round of the Playoffs. Kansas and Texas start the Round of 8, which concludes at Martinsville.
With three short tracks now in the Playoffs, and with Bristol and Martinsville serving as the cut-off races for the first and third rounds, respectively, short-tracks clearly are taking on a more significant role in the new schedule.
In another departure from the norm that fans have seen, the Cup series will take a two-week break after the July 19 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and resume competition Aug. 9 at Michigan International Speedway – coinciding with the 2020 Summer Olympics.
And to cap it off, the season will conclude a week earlier than in recent years with the Championship 4 race in Phoenix, Arizona, taking place on Sunday, Nov. 8, over Veteran’s Day weekend.