One of my favorite NASCAR memories is being at my grandparent’s house on July 4th, 2009. We were shooting off fireworks in the backyard and I kept coming back and forth to check on the Coke Zero 400. Tony Stewart won the race by basically sending Kyle Busch into the wall and went on to win the race. My Mom has been a die-hard Tony Stewart fan since his rookie season, and this was back when I was not a Kyle Busch fan in the slightest. This was a great memory for me and cemented the second Daytona race as a July 4th mainstay.
So, I want to be clear that I am somewhat biased for nostalgic reasons. This is a conspiracy theory, but not a super juicy one that strings along down rabbit holes, it’s pretty cut and dry. NASCAR is a sport made for entertainment, just like any professional sport, and like any professional sport, they want their most popular players to be winning and at the peak of the competitive ladder.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the most popular driver in the sport for twenty years and was consistently the driver that fans went crazy when he won a race or even took the lead in a race. While Dale Jr. has 26 victories to his credit, there is no doubt that he was more of a consistent threat whenever we went to superspeedways. Daytona and Talladega were the heart of Junior Nation because he was always so competitive there.
Now that Jr. is retired, the door has opened for Chase Elliott to come in and take over his role as the fan-favorite driver. The big difference is, that Elliott is not at the same level of threat on superspeedways.
In the same way that superspeedways were Jr.’s bread and butter, road courses are Chase Elliott’s. He is now two wins away from tying Jeff Gordon for the all-time road course wins record and he’s only 25-years old. To be fair, Gordon was racing back when they only visited two road courses a season. The fact remains the same, Elliott is going to blow that record out of the water by the time his career is over.
It’s no coincidence that since Elliott has come into the sport and begun dominating road course that the amount of road courses have more than doubled in the last couple years. Six road courses are now on the Cup schedule, and those are now six races where Elliott fans get excited. Daytona on the Fourth of July was a premiere race for so many years, and now NASCAR is attempting to shoehorn Road America as a new July 4th tradition.
I’ll be honest, yesterday’s race was not a super exciting one. It was an average race, but nothing that pole-vaulted this over a Daytona race. I thought that the booth and NASCAR media were trying to force this as an amazing new tradition, and I don’t see it that way.
I will always look at the Fourth of July as the perfect second Daytona race. Daytona is such an amazing venue and race, so to have both its events as premiere dates were cool. I always felt like the Coke Zero 400 being on Fourth of July made it a semi-crow jewel event.
Yesterday’s Road America race gave me no sense of it being any semblance of a crown jewel event. Oh, and let’s not forget that the Brickyard 400 has now become a road course race, once again no coincidence. A crown jewel event that has been possibly turned into Chase Elliott’s playground.
I think at this point it is clear that NASCAR is manipulating the schedule to open the door for more Elliott wins. Not only more wins, but more high profile wins. I don’t blame them really, Elliott is the fan favorite and when he wins it helps the sport as a whole. It’s not like he’s cheating or NASCAR is manipulating the outcomes of the race, he’s just that good. To be fair, the rest of the field needs to get on his level to be able to compete with him.
I’m not here to say Road America doesn’t need to be on the schedule, or that we need to take away road courses. I think the road courses are fun to watch and produce great racing, and NASCAR now has a more diverse schedule which is great for its reputation and skill level. I just don’t want to see them start to take up every important date and while this being a Fourth of July mainstay will not weigh heavy on my mind, it’s never going to truly feel right to me.