For Eddie Gossage, it's night and day
Hold off on heading over to the world-famous Billy Bob's for your Saturday night two-steppin' this weekend. And better make those plans for that big Texas T-bone on Sunday afternoon.
For the first time since the place opened in 1997, Texas Motor Speedway is going Sprint Cup racing under the lights on Saturday. The Samsung Mobile 500 probably will draw the biggest crowd ever to see a sports event in Texas on a Saturday night.
TMS has enjoyed huge crowds and a lot of success with its Sunday Cup races, so why did track president Eddie Gossage decide to move the April event to Saturday night?
"I'm the original night-race guy," Gossage said Monday. "When I started working at Nashville in 1980, we were the only track with two nighttime Cup races.
"I worked at Bristol and we always had the one night race, and I was at Charlotte when the All-Star Race became a night event in 1992. Night racing is my thing. To me, it was the best thing we could do to keep the event fresh."
It's also the first Saturday night Cup race of the season. Three of the next four Cup events are Saturday evening shows, including Richmond on April 30 and Darlington on May 7.
The Nationwide race Friday night also will be the first time that series races under the lights at TMS.
Most of the night Cup races in 2011 are bunched together -- back-to-back weekends at Daytona and Kentucky in July before three consecutive night events at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond before the start of the Chase. Charlotte on Oct. 15 is the only Chase event on a Saturday night.
"I think night racing is good for Cup," Gossage said. "It takes us back to our roots. I became a race fan going to the track on Saturday night. I worked at a grocery store until 6 p.m. and rushed to get to the track before the race started. It's kind of back to the future for me."
Gossage also thinks the future could hold night races on a weekday. The TMS race this past April was rained out on Sunday but still had a crowd of more than 100,000 on Monday during the day. That got Gossage thinking about what could happen on a Monday night, a thought he shared with NASCAR president Mike Helton.
"I was standing next to Mike on that Monday, looking at the crowd," Gossage said. "I said, 'We ought to consider doing this on a Monday night.' Mike agreed that maybe we should try it sometime. You never know. We're always looking for the next big thing or the next game-changer. Maybe that's it."
For now, Gossage is happy to see what Saturday night holds for TMS and Cup racing.
"It has a lot of advantages," Gossage said. "Fans can tailgate all day at the track and cook some food. And if it rains you have a rain date on Sunday. But overall, I think night racing should remain the exception. That's part of what makes it special."
There's another big advantage for TMS this week. The Cup race won't go head-to-head with the final round of The Masters as it would have if the race had been Sunday afternoon. Nighttime is the right time in this case.
As more tracks have added lights in recent years, racing at night has increased in NASCAR. The TMS event is one of 10 Saturday night Cup races this season, including the new event at Kentucky Speedway on July 9.
But it isn't an increase from last year, because two tracks moved a Saturday night event back to a Sunday afternoon race -- the Phoenix spring race six weeks ago and the Chicagoland Speedway event, which now starts the Chase.
Racing on Saturday night is nothing new for TMS. It has played host to 25 Camping World Trucks Series events at night, and all 14 June IndyCar Series races.
"I've watched every time the Indy cars run [at TMS] at night, and the same thing with the trucks," Cup driver Paul Menard said last week. "They put on a really good show in the nighttime, and it's going to be the same for us.
"It's a fast racetrack, and we saw insane qualifying speeds [195.397 mph for pole winner Elliott Sadler] last fall. We'll see some more of that this year. It's going to be cool."
This won't be the first time Cup competitors have raced at TMS after dark. Several Sunday races in the past started late in the afternoon and ended under the lights. But this is the first time on Saturday, and the first time that most of the race will take place in the dark. The race starts at 6:30 pm CT and usually takes about 3½ hours to complete the 334-lap event.
A few drivers still seem a little confused about how the weekend will work.
"My first thought is 'What the hell are we doing with this weird schedule at Texas?'" Jimmie Johnson said last weekend at Martinsville. "We practice on Thursday night and all the other stuff that's going on. So I'm still trying to get my head around that."
Actually, the Cup teams are practicing in the heat of the day, which is expected to reach 90 degrees Thursday and Friday. The Cup practice session Thursday starts at 4:10 p.m., and the final practice Friday starts at 2 p.m.
I think night racing is good for Cup. It takes us back to our roots. I became a race fan going to the track on Saturday night.” -- Eddie Gossage
It means the crew chiefs will need to make a calculated guess on the car setup after dark when temperatures will be 20 degrees cooler, adding grip to the asphalt.
"That's the biggest thing, answering the unanswered," driver Ryan Newman said about this Texas race. "We always have a big balance transition [from day races to night races] at [other 1.5-mile ovals] like Charlotte and Atlanta."
Night racing just has a different feel to it all the way around, and fans attending this race could see something unusual happen.
Kevin Harvick could win his third consecutive Cup race, but he would have to do it at a track where he never has won. That didn't stop him from winning at Martinsville or California in the past two races.
Or Denny Hamlin could become the first driver to win three consecutive Cup races at Texas, which would give him his first victory since winning at TMS in November.
Or Dale Earnhardt Jr., coming off his second-place finish at Martinsville, could end his 99-race losing streak at the place where he won his first Cup race 11 years ago.
"I don't really keep count," Earnhardt said of his losing streak before the Martinsville race, "but it has been a long time. I feel closer to Victory Lane than I have in a long time. We'll just have to see how it goes, but Texas is a good track for me."
By the way, five of Earnhardt's Cup victories have come on Saturday night. So hold off on dancing and dinner plans in the Lone Star state Saturday. You might miss something special at TMS.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.