Monday, February 22, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Daytona Deliberations

The Drive to Survive release date was announced for March 19. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will have some throwback liveries in 2021. The Asian Le Mans Series concluded its ten-day season. Tony Kanaan is going to compete full-time in the Stock Car Brasil series. James Davison might be back for the Indianapolis 500. Pietro Fittipaldi remains the reserve driver at Haas. NASCAR had a pair of first-time winners this weekend and one was a debutant. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Daytona Deliberations
NASCAR spent its first two weeks of the season in Daytona, but unlike other years when the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying led off before the main event, these Speedweeks saw two points-paying weekends, with the Daytona 500 leading off the season ahead of a road course race, which was a replacement for a lost Fontana race. 

Through two weekends, time was a key theme and it raises many questions about future decisions.

For starters, a lengthy delay of the Daytona 500 caused many to wonder whether NASCAR made the correct decision restarting a race that was only 16 laps old after 9:00 p.m. ET on a Sunday night. With practically all the race left to complete, the 63rd edition of NASCAR's most famous race did not end until Monday morning. 

While the race was completed in one go, the primetime/late-night window did not attract more viewers, in fact it drew fewer viewers than the delayed Monday evening race from the year before. 

We have been debating race start times for the better part of the last two decades since the influx of television money has seen regular 1:00 p.m. start times morph into regular 3:00 p.m. start times. A 1:00 p.m. start is now a special occasion. 

The Daytona 500 start time has not been safe from bouncing around. It has gone from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., back to 1:00 p.m. and then back to 3:00 p.m. Every time NASCAR has sought the dinnertime finish it has found itself in a precarious situation and returned to an early afternoon window. After spending the back half of the 2000s starting around 3:00 p.m., the race moved back to a 1:20 p.m. green flag time in 2010 after a rain-shortened race in 2009. 

The one-ish start time remained through 2016, but even an early start time didn't mean the race was free of delays. The 2010 race was red-flagged when the track came apart. The 2012 race was rain-delayed until Monday night. The 2014 race completed 39 laps before rain and a tornado warning delayed the race six hours. 

In 2017, the race start inched back to 2:40 p.m., then back another ten minutes to 2:50 p.m. in 2018, and the race has started between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. ever since.

But after consecutive seasons with red flags coming within the first 50 miles of the race, many are calling for an earlier start time and it just might have traction. 

No one wants a rain-delayed race or a rain-shortened race, but there is a better solution than effectively starting a race at 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday night in February. 

NASCAR cannot let its biggest race of the season get lost in the night with most people tuning out and forgetting it is even happening. It is one thing to have an Atlanta race drag on or a Homestead race. The Daytona 500 is not another race. It is the race NASCAR should want everyone to see and it should aim for the highest possible viewership. NASCAR might not want the race to be on Monday, but Monday evening is a lot better than finish after 11:00 p.m. on Sunday. 

An earlier start time creates a larger window. We have seen 1:00 p.m. start time races delayed due to rain, but a six-hour delay in that case means a 7:00 p.m. restart, a more suitable time for an audience. You have the entire day and the early part of the night to finish the race. 

As much as NASCAR wants to get the race in and not force the teams to spend an extra day in Daytona, I think this answers the question of what the course of action should be if the race has been delayed in its early stages and that is move the race to Monday night. We had identical situations in 2020 and 2021. One was forced to run on Monday, the other tried to get in on Sunday. Monday won where it matters most and after the ghastly television number in 2021, both series and broadcaster knows not to repeat that choice in 2022.

If NASCAR and Fox don't want to start the race at 1:00 p.m., I think there is a middle ground in a 2:15 p.m. start time. The race will finish as twilight descends on the 2.5-mile speedway but still provides a little more wiggle room in case of a delay. 

The rain was uncooperative on the first weekend of the season, but it didn't matter on the second weekend of the season, as the three national touring series took to the road course and the Truck race on Friday night started in damp conditions. With the rain subsiding in the opening laps, the track would be slow but dry out through the night. The only problem is the improving conditions did lead to improved racing. In fact, the best portion of the race was the first stage when the track was damp and required wet weather tires. 

After running 20 of the first 23 laps under green flag conditions, 17 of the final 28 laps were under yellow flag conditions. The final five green flag runs were all only one lap in length. At two hours, 44 minutes and 46 seconds it is the longest race in Truck Series history. Of those two hours, 44 minutes and 46 seconds, about 67% of it was under caution. 

NASCAR has tried a lot of things over the last 20 years. It is time for NASCAR to adopt a time limit for road course races, specifically when it rains. With the series expanding its road course racing to previously unfathomable heights, it is time to do what every other road course series does. The Truck Series has four road course races this season. The chances of another wet race for the Truck Series are high. If NASCAR is willing to screw around and throw arbitrary cautions in the middle of the race for "the sake of the show" then it should have no problem instituting a time limit for the sake of the show. 

There is no point racing to a set distance in the wet. It is a futile effort when the average speed is 67 mph. A time limit gets us to the point. It doesn't drag out proceedings. NASCAR is getting nowhere with races carrying on for an hour longer than they should have gone. With the increase in road course races I think this is a good time to test out a time limit for wet races. Cap it at an hour and 45 minutes for the Trucks, two hours for the Grand National Series and two hours and 20 minutes for the Cup Series. Time limits would at least add a little urgency to these races. We can figure out how to distribute stage points later, but NASCAR has to consider it because dragged out affairs where the field can only complete one green flag lap in each run is not sustainable if you hope to attract new viewerships and keep them engaged. 

Like most years leaving Daytona in February, there are a lot of questions and thoughts about what lies ahead for this season and beyond. How NASCAR defines its relationship with time is one of them in 2021.

Champions From the Weekend

The #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus 01-Gibson of René Binder, Ferdinand Habsburg and Ye Yifei clinched the Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 championship with finishes of second and fourth at Abu Dhabi.

The #23 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan of Wayne Boyd, Manuel Maldonado and Rory Penttinen clinched the ALMS LMP3 championship with a victory in the season finale at Abu Dhabi, the team's third victory of the season. The #9 Nielsen Racing Ligier-Nissan of Colin Noble and Anthony Wells won the first race at Abu Dhabi. 

The #99 Herberth Motorsport Porsche of Ralf Bohn, Alfred Renauer and Robert Renauer clinched the ALMS GT championship with finishes of second and fifth from Abu Dhabi.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the Asian Le Mans Series champions, but did you know...

Christopher Bell won the NASCAR Cup race on the Daytona road course, his first career victory. Ty Gibbs won the Grand National Series race on debut. Ben Rhodes won his second consecutive Truck race to open the season.

The #28 Jota Sport Oreca-Gibson of Sean Gelael and Tom Blomqvist swept the Asian Le Mans Series races from Abu Dhabi. The #40 GPX Racing Porsche of Julien Andlauer, Alain Ferté and Axcil Jefferies won the first race in GT and the #57 Kessel Racing with Car Guy Ferrari of Mikkel Jensen, Takeshi Kimura and Côme Ledogar won the second race in GT.

Cooper Webb won the Supercross race in Orlando, his second consecutive victory and third of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR wraps up its Florida fling at Homestead.
The World Rally Championship will contest the Arctic Rally - Finland. 
Formula E opens its season with two night races in Saudi Arabia. 
Supercars begins 2021 where it finished 2020, at Bathurst, but this is a sprint weekend and not an endurance classic.