Some track deals throw NASCAR for a loop
Atlanta's up next on the Nextel Cup schedule, which means NASCAR is about to go 4-for-4. As in, four different race schedules in as many events.
While the season-opening Daytona 500 is a schedule unto itself, things have always been pretty simple otherwise. Except for two-day shows leading up to Saturday-night races, teams have practiced and qualified on Fridays, practiced again on Saturdays and raced on Sunday.
Nothing too confusing about any of that.
This year, though, with NASCAR trying to work toward two-day shows across the board, things are in a state of flux. A major state of flux. And people keeping score at home likely are scratching their heads by now.
"I think NASCAR is trying to figure out what they're doing and trying to be consistent," Ryan Newman said at Las Vegas. "I guess they gave the officials the day off on Saturday [in Atlanta], so we'll take the day off, too. Actually, I'm going to go fishing."
Although Newman's got his day off set, a number of his fellow Cup drivers will be racing in Saturday's Busch Series event. Others will use the occasion to fly home after qualifying Friday night to spend the day with their families in North Carolina, only to turn around Sunday morning and fly back for the 12:30 p.m. ET race.
Some crews, in fact, are flying into Atlanta on Friday morning, home that night and then back in on Sunday.
In time, things might become more uniform across the board. At least, that's what NASCAR's hoping. In a perfect world, teams would show up for practice and qualifying on Saturday, then race on Sunday.
Why can't it be like that right now? Because business concerns of several track owners threw a wrench into NASCAR's best-laid plans. Some tracks have sponsorship arrangements in place for Friday qualifying and understandably don't want those deals to end.
Along with those sponsors come large crowds for Friday qualifying sessions at tracks such as Las Vegas, Bristol and Texas. NASCAR, though, still prefers two-day shows. So this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Cup garage will be closed Saturday.
The sanctioning body gets its two-day show, albeit with a gap in the middle, while Atlanta still gets to host "Pole Night" on Friday before the Craftsman Truck Series race.
Longtime crew chief Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, says NASCAR really does have a plan in place. He just hopes that time allows that plan to be embraced by all of the tracks on the circuit.
"If you look back at the TV contracts [when Fox and NBC/TNT took over in 2001], there were racetracks that had pre-existing agreements with sponsors and other networks when it came around," Pemberton said. "This is along the same lines where, as we try to move forward and do impound schedules everywhere we go, it is unique to each racetrack under the contracts they have and sponsor obligations for pole day.
"We have worked with all of the racetracks, and it's one of those situations where we at NASCAR hope we get back to a common schedule like we had in the past. It's probably a few years away. We hate that it goes this way, but early on we've had two or three different schedules."
In the end, Pemberton hopes a solution can be worked out that benefits everyone. Perhaps the biggest carrot NASCAR could dangle is that shorter weekends for 37 races (counting the non-points All-Star race) could eventually lead to additional races on the schedule.
That, more than anything else, might be enough of an incentive to get Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. group (which owns Atlanta, Bristol, Las Vegas, Sears Point and Texas) on the same page.
For now, though, Pemberton knows there will be some confusion as teams adapt to whatever schedule they're facing in a given week. In time, he thinks, teams will come to embrace the shorter schedules.
"It will help on their expenses," Pemberton said. "Eventually when we get across the board, it should help with their travel expenses. As we look at it, as the crew's time away from home [is an issue] -- it's not getting any easier; teams are getting bigger, harder to manage, harder to move across country. We don't race in our backyard like we did 15 years ago every week. So that's how we address it. We're looking down the road for it."
For now, drivers and teams continue adjusting, whether they like the new system or not.
Dale Jarrett's one who likes the new system, which leaves drivers assured a starting spot by their standing in the top 35 in points the opportunity to spend most of their time focusing on getting the best race setup possible.
Elliott Sadler, Jarrett's Robert Yates Racing teammate, likes the variety the different schedules provide.
"I like it because it throws us a curveball every week. I'm glad we don't do the same monotonous stuff every weekend," Sadler said. "One weekend, the driver has to be in one mind-set to try to get it ready for race practice and just tape it up [for qualifying]. This week, we had to really get it ready for qualifying Friday and then go for race practice Saturday, so it throws a curveball to us every single week.
"It's more nerve-racking and stressful on the crew chiefs probably, but it's what this sport is all about -- the best will prevail. So I kind of like the schedule changes."
Len Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, likes the impound schedule based on what he saw at California Speedway last month. This despite the schedule's meaning more work for the team before it leaves the shop.
Of course, he might be whistling a different tune after this weekend.
"We have to go through a full checklist before we load the car," Wood said. "It does create a little rush after practice before qualifying because that has to be the final check before the race. Now, when it comes to Atlanta and Bristol, it will be different because we practice Friday afternoon and qualify that night. And the garage won't be open on Saturday. But, so far I like it."
Jimmie Johnson is in favor of the impound procedure -- mainly with the hope that it will give drivers and crews an extra day at home.
"It keeps us focused on the right thing, and it's going to raise the level of competition," Johnson said. "Everybody is going to have more of an opportunity to work on their race setup, and qualifying isn't as important in that respect. You've got to worry about the race. I think it's a good move."
Carl Edwards, the Roush Racing sophomore sitting fifth in points in just his first full Cup season, might have the best perspective.
"It's fine. We could be at every racetrack for five days, or we could show up and unload and race," Edwards said. "As long as everyone has to do the same thing, it doesn't bother me. I'm up for whatever."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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