Fixing NASCAR’s Road Course Racing Problem

William Byron

Getty William Byron at Circuit of The Americas

Over the last five years, NASCAR became infatuated with road course racing. The number of non-oval races on the schedule has tripled, and the drivers have gotten much better at this discipline.

The series is still trying to figure out the perfect formula for these events though. They have experimented with different rules and ideas over the years, but something is still not quite right. The March 24 race at Circuit of The Americas was a snoozer, and a prime example of why the road racing product still needs some work.

Suggestions to improve the racing have been coming in waves this week. We have heard from officials, crew chiefs, team owners, and drivers like Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, AJ Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick, and others.

They didn’t all agree on the ideal solution but the consensus was that a change is needed. If rumors are true that NASCAR is pursuing the 50-percent stake in the Long Beach circuit, they will surely need to incorporate some changes.

A few of the ideas were a little off-the-wall but some made perfect sense.

Eliminate Track Limits

One of the best suggestions from the drivers was to take track limits out of the equation. COTA is different, in that it is mostly flat in the corners. Putting curbs and barriers around the track is the easiest way to prevent drivers from cutting corners. If there is no way to physically drive in a place that is “off limits” then there would be no temptation.

Harvick is of a different opinion on this subject. The 2014 Cup champion adores this aspect of road racing and wants to see more officiating from the series.

While that sounds like a good idea, it opens up a big can of worms. Senior VP of Competition Elton Sawyer discussed that in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

IndyCar has three officials who closely monitor every aspect of the entire race. They can penalize drivers for blocking, unsafe releases, etc. These are subjective calls, that typically don’t go over well with those that are penalized.

Lessen Driver Penalties

This seemed to be the primary focus for most people who wanted to voice their opinion. The penalties handed out in the race last weekend didn’t seem to fit the crime. Formula One typically issues warnings to drivers before handing out time penalties. The same punishment won’t work for NASCAR but a warning would be a good start.

IndyCar will give drivers a pass-through penalty or make them give a position back if it was taken illegally. Drivers penalized at COTA suffered much greater punishment. It essentially took away any shot they had to get a great result.

In the Xfinity series races on Saturday, Shane van Gisbergen was issued a 30-second track limits penalty. He went from a 2nd place result to finishing 28th.

Even Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks disagreed with the penalty that Chase Elliott received.

Marks also suggested that tracks with an “escape road” could be used as punishment. They could be forced to take that longer route, costing them track position. As we saw on the IMS road course though, drivers will try to even take advantage of that.

It’s a good idea in theory, similar to when drivers must come to a complete stop after missing a corner at the ROVAL or Watkins Glen. Drivers seem to be in favor of this, too.

No More Stage Break Cautions

Stage racing began in 2017 with the idea that it would incentivize drivers to go hard to earn extra points. It also tends to bunch up the field and create something interesting. Mission accomplished with that. It has plenty of positives but the one big negative is the cautions that accompany them.

Aside from killing the natural flow of the race, it gives the fans at home a reason to tune out. Once the stage ends, the action is halted for 10-15 minutes. Part of the excitement of the races is the unpredictability of cautions. A crash, spin, or blown tire can happen at any moment. It keeps crew chiefs on their toes as the strategy is always changing.

The road courses suffer even greater from these planned cautions. It also hurts the drivers up front that have worked hard for a sizable gap over the competition. Last year NASCAR tried to do away with these, which got a mixed reaction from the fan base. Giving out stage points is great, but these planned “timeouts” are a real buzzkill.