By Cole Cusumano
Prior to the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway, it had been 36 years since the NASCAR Cup Series ran a scheduled race on a weeknight. The event had everything from intense racing, to strategic audibles and an ending that resulted in the sport’s most popular driver displaying the middle finger to one of the winningest athletes in NASCAR history. Needless to say, the final product was an overwhelming success in the eyes of fans and drivers alike.
It’s a shame it took a global pandemic to force the sanctioning body’s hands, because the drivers have been clamoring for shortened weeknight races for years and now the world sees why. There are multiple variables to unpack from the madness that unfolded on Wednesday night, but here is why NASCAR should seriously consider embracing the idea of more events in this format.
Let’s start with the idea of a weekday race in general. If planned accordingly, NASCAR would only have to compete with the major professional sports leagues in the MLB and NHL; both of which don’t accumulate as many viewers as heavy-weights like the NFL or NBA. In being the only form of live sporting entertainment during COVID-19 currently, the sport should be gaining more eyes from people who don’t typically follow racing. To back this up, Nielson revealed that 30% of viewers who tuned into The Real Heroes 400 had never watched a Cup Series race in 2020 prior to the halt in competition.
What’s the plan of attack to keep these newcomers engaged? Shorter race distances.
The sad reality of the world today is that people’s attention spans have diminished drastically. While your average race fan may squirm at the idea of shortening these events, the 500 kilometer contest at Darlington made a convincing argument as to why it may not be such a bad idea.
Beginning with the overall product, the racing was top notch. Viewers were treated to non-stop action from the drop of the green flag to when the rain came and forced an early end to the event. In decreasing the length, the level of urgency from the drivers and teams was certainly ramped up. Yes, there was also the threat of inclement weather at play, but we’ve seen the same results at tracks like Phoenix Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway over the years.
As for what the stopwatch finished at for the conclusion of the race, it was really no different than your average 400 mile event. By the time Denny Hamlin was named the winner of the Toyota 500, it took 2 hours and 42 minutes to complete 285 miles — and that felt perfect. Between the stage breaks and the plethora of cautions that occured due to the sprint to the finish, it all evened out for the most part.
Another avenue that NASCAR may seriously want to consider exploring is the inverted top-20 format for these races. The field was set for the Wednesday night event at the 1.366-mile track by virtue of inverting the top-20 results from Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400.
In having this unique format, it added yet another element that brought excitement. Not only that, it brought more exposure to competitors who aren’t in elite equipment like Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske. Should this invert be applied to more races (shortened or in general), it could potentially bring in more big name sponsors to the sport who are willing to pay for these lesser known teams and drivers. In a sport like NASCAR, exposure and dollars are everything, and this invert certainly brought a handful of drivers to the forum in the early to mid-stages of this race.
From a competition standpoint, it was thrilling to see guys like Kevin Harvick and Alex Bowman claw their way up from the middle of the pack in a hurry. Not only that, it opens the door for more strategy calls in the races prior to the implemented invert. Maybe some drivers and teams who don’t see themselves winning the race or notching a top-five will seek out a 15th place finish in order to have a quality starting position in the following event.
The only variable that may diminish the pleas for more weeknight races were the ratings from the Toyota 500. After amassing a 1.22 rating with 2.087 million viewers, contrasted to the 3.7 and 6.323 million on Sunday, that’s one very important aspect that won’t help the case for more events like this.
There is, however, more than meets the eye to this factor.
Due to the forecast, NASCAR moved the start time of the Wednesday night contest to 6 p.m. when it was initially scheduled for 8 p.m. With this change in place, coverage began with track drying efforts underway and the green flag didn’t drop until around 7:50 p.m. If they kept the initial start in place, racing would have taken place on time. Granted, no one can predict the weather, but nonetheless, you’d have to think that almost a two-hour rain delay turned people away.
The other pretty significant variable is where the race was being broadcasted. The Toyota 500 was aired on Fox Sports 1 — a channel not as easily accessible to people like Fox. This would explain why the ratings and viewers almost doubled in comparison to the race on Sunday, as that was aired on national television.
All things considered, it’s safe to say that the final product was everything that race fans and drivers had hoped for. A majority of the sport’s biggest stars took to social media following the race, praising the sanctioning body for the event and campaigning for more. Darlington, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and NASCAR were all top-trending topics on Twitter.
While the viewership and ratings may not have reflected all of the positives that came from the weeknight event, it left a lasting impact on those who matter the most. Admittedly, one race is a small sample size to go all in on the notion of dramatically increasing more shortened weeknight races. But good news for NASCAR and fans is that they’ll have another shot at replicating this on-track magic with hopefully more viewers on Wednesday, May 27th at Charlotte Motor Speedway — the finale event which will conclude four consecutive days of racing.
For now, all focus shifts to one of racing’s crowned jewel events in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, which airs on May 24th at 6 p.m. ET on Fox.
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