Hard to believe but after only three weeks of racing, the Sprint Cup Series enjoyed its first open weekend on the schedule before beginning a short five-race stretch that will take the sport to the traditional Easter break. This early open date has always been a sore spot with the fans and even some of the competitors as it comes at a time when the series is just beginning to create some momentum after three races.
NASCAR has already announced that the 2012 schedule will no longer have the early open date as the season-opening Daytona 500 will be pushed back a week next season to Feb. 26. The change has to be a welcome move for the Sprint Cup teams as the three open dates that now dot the schedule do very little in breaking up the season in manageable stretches of races.
Beginning with Bristol this weekend, the series will have a five-race stretch that will take it to the Easter break. Even though this is another short stretch of races, it is one of the best on the entire schedule as it involves a wide variety of tracks.
Besides the short track of Bristol with its high-banked turns, the series will also be stopping at Martinsville for another short track battle that features a very narrow paperclip-flat half-mile surface that promotes plenty of hard side-by-side racing.
The remaining three tracks that make up this portion of the schedule all vary in length and each will test both drivers and teams in a different way. Fans of the mile-and-a-half tracks will be excited, as the series will be making the first of two stops at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas is one of those tracks that packs a lot of excitement into a weekend as it will play host to one of the larger crowds of the year, plus the track has a reputation of producing some very wild finishes.
That leaves stops at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California and Talladega Superspeedway. Auto Club Speedway is a twomile, D-shaped oval that is very wide with plenty of racing room, but is seldom used as it seems a couple of cars always get hooked up and quickly start putting cars a lap down. Don’t be surprised if fuel mileage also plays a role in the outcome of this one.
That leaves the restrictor plate track of Talladega that always produces plenty of white-knuckle racing, but the question going into this spring’s event is the kind of racing that we will see. Last fall’s stop at the giant venue saw the early start of the two-car draft that became a household name last month at Daytona in the 500. Regardless of the type of racing that the track produces, whether it’s the large packs of cars glued to each other’s bumpers or the twocar tandems, we know to expect an unbelievable finish.
Once the schedule leaves Talladega, it will break for Easter before beginning a 12-week stretch of races that also includes the all-star event at Charlotte. This portion of the schedule runs from April into July, but it pales in comparison for what lies ahead after the last open weekend on July 24. Beginning with the last weekend of July in Indianapolis, the schedule has 17 consecutive weekends of racing including the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami on Nov. 20.
The Sprint Cup season’s final two stretches of races can be brutal on teams as cars have to be prepared well in advance to meet the demands of racing so many weekends in a row without the benefit of an open date. Even though the season will start a week later next season, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer on where to put the open weekends. Tracks all have their traditional dates that they’d like to keep, and of course the networks carrying the races have a large say in when the series goes racing. There is no good solution for the teams that have to be prepared every weekend, but for the fans it’s great because we know all we have to do is turn on the TV what seems like each weekend from February to November.
Race Preview Event: The Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (.5 mile oval, 24-30 degrees of variable banking) Date: March 20, 1 p.m. TV: FOX Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson