The regular season of the 2021 NASCAR Cup series reached its conclusion at the Daytona International Speedway with the running of the Coca-Cola Zero Sugar 400 last Saturday night. For the last couple of years, the end of the regular season has been held at the World Center of Racing serving as one last shot to make the Playoffs. The race is billed with extra excitement as the unpredictability and unique winners of the super speedway tracks are intended to produce yet another of NASCAR’s self-proclaimed “game 7 moments.” Last season, William Bryon scored his first Cup win in the promised exciting fashion, yielding some of the best of what this schedule idea was shooting for. The 2021 edition stood to produce more of the same, yet the end of the event deflated the crowd like a lead balloon and left most fans disconnected with what just occurred. This is especially troublesome as the race itself was some of the best we’ve seen at a super speedway all year. How could that possibly be, and just how should we end a regular season in NASCAR?
It’s been beaten like a dead horse, but NASCAR’s commitment to producing an “entertaining” product has been a constant battle in the post Winston Cup era of 2004 to present. The Playoffs themselves are a topic for another time, but the way to close a regular season has rightly begun to come under scrutiny. For the first several years, Richmond served as the last chance race, and it really did produce some memories from the beginning of the Playoff concept. Jeremy Mayfield snuck into the Playoffs with his win in 2004, even before the “win and you’re in” idea was brought in years later. It’s a high we’ve been chasing ever since and have frankly struggled to duplicate.
The randomness and nearly guaranteed destruction of cars from a race at Daytona was of course the main idea with moving the 400 miler from its July date to here, and the decision to do so was beyond transparent. An initial problem with this is that Daytona was not a race that needed “saving” or needed an extra layer of NARRATIVE slapped on top to increase excitement. Daytona would be just as entertaining on a Tuesday morning in January, and produces a better race without so much on the line. There’s nothing that says the Daytona 500 MUST be the first race of the year but being so early in the calendar is a benefit, as drivers can focus on winning the Great American Race without any other thought in their mind. Kyle Larson, whose racing resume at this point is missing scarcely more than a NASCAR super speedway win, was compelled to play it safe and protect his regular season point lead rather than mix it up and go for the W. A portion of the field playing it safe while the rest are almost literally out for blood is a poor approximation to a quality NASCAR race…and yet for the most part we still had one.
After a Talladega race earlier this season in which Joey Logano flipped and questioned the safety of the super speedway aero package, several changes were made that took effect for the first time at Daytona. Slowing the cars down slightly and reducing the “runs” of car drafting, there was some uneasy conjecture in the garage and on social media before the race. Still, for nearly all of the event, the competition seemed vastly improved. There was still the questionable sloppiness of a draft line run and some ill-advised blocking, but until the end of the race it seemed the cars and drivers could control themselves from having the big incident. It was properly exciting without being destructive. When the end of the race came however, I don’t think any aero or engine package could have prevented what the drivers began doing. Blocks went from ill-advised to just plain stupid. Bump drafts went from square to violently sloppy. Drivers who in most any other race wouldn’t make these sort of mistakes started looking like unpolished rookies. The brake pedal was no longer addressed, and the return of the “wreck em all and see who survives” won the day despite everyone’s earlier best efforts. I can’t say that this wouldn’t have still happened in July without the Playoffs only a week away, but I confident that most of us wouldn’t have as empty a feeling after the race as we did Saturday. As Ryan Blaney’s miraculously untarnished car meandered slowly to its win as the millions of dollars in wrecked cars lagged just behind, there was a tangible deflation in the air from what was mostly a grade-A super speedway race. Even the Blaney team radio seemed unimpressed and only slightly relieved that their team took the trophy after all that. I’m not here to call anything a farce, or a Mickey Mouse whatever, and I’m happy Ryan Blaney is having a career year…there’s just a disconnect after a moment like that, one you could only experience at a super speedway. It was a great race with an unfortunate end, and I feel we as the fans have been done a disservice. So, what do we do from here?
For this discussion, the Playoffs are not going anywhere. I can’t imagine a world in which NASCAR would so quickly pack in the Playoff idea, so for now we’ve still got to accept and deal with it. With the Playoffs still a factor, we need to consider a lower impact track when drivers are more desperate. Richmond could certainly still work, as could the other short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville. NASCAR is at least pretending to still focus on short tracks going forward, and if the eventual Fontana, California short track works out, it could also be considered a contender. In any event, I don’t think having the finale at the same track every year is the answer and having it at the super speedways needs to be avoided like the plague. Perhaps a rotation of short tracks is in order, trading dates with their Playoff counter parts. I’m fearful of certain tracks generating a bad taste in the fans’ collective mouth and continuing at Daytona in this way could make turn one of the four super speedway events into a chore. There was a time in our lives where a great number of fans would clamor for an event this hectic at a place like Bowman Gray Stadium, and a race like that may end up as a reality someday. I feel moving the race someplace safer is treating a symptom rather than attacking the cause of the disease. We’re in dire need to wakeup from this dream, and try to remember what makes racing great, game 7 moments be damned.
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