NASCAR’s future brings reasons for optimism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kyle Larson, decked out a suit and bowtie, attended a party at The Joseph. Inside a penthouse suite of the top floor of the luxury hotel stood dignitaries from Goodyear, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR, all dressed in their best formal attire. In one corner of the room laid a table with kobe beef sandwiches, Nashville chicken and waffles on a stick, dumplings and other wealthy delicacies. Over in the adjacent room stood a fully stocked bar, with bartenders at the ready.

At the center of the room stood the centerpiece of the party, the Goodyear Gold Car.

Eventually, the dignitaries gathered around Larson and the car for photos.

Later, he posed again with further NASCAR dignitaries and members of the No. 5 crew, next to the Bill France Cup. Meanwhile, his children, Owen and Audrey Larson, sat in the nearby media work area. Owen impatiently rubbed a chair and fiddled with an iPad, while Audrey wondered the room (then also fiddled with an iPad).

Finally, their turn for pictures with dad came.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – DECEMBER 2: 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship driver, Kyle Larson, wife Katelyn, son, Owen and daughter Audrey for pose for photos with the Bill France NASCAR Cup Series Championship trophy during the NASCAR Champion’s Banquet at the Music City Center on Dec. 2, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Thursday was a night of glamour and celebration for Larson, whose journey from pariah to elite driver culminated with the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

And that was before the afterparty.

Throughout the award ceremony and party which continued into the night, a sense of optimism and hope for the future permeated the industry.

NASCAR’s future brings reasons for optimism

Major changes coming

CONCORD, N.C. – OCTOBER 11: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Next Gen car drives during the NASCAR Cup Series test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 11, 2021, in Concord, North Carolina. Photo: Bob Leverone/Getty Images

NASCAR is in the midst of major changes to both the schedule and car.

The league and track owners dropped maligned tracks like Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, and replaced them with new circuits — like Circuit of the Americas and Road America — and second dates for legacy tracks, such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway.

“I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that we would be where we’re at today, with a brand new race car and the schedule being as drastically different as it is,” Aric Almirola said.

“Just going to different tracks and stuff like that is pretty interesting,” Kyle Busch said. “Having that opportunity to do that now is, has been, I feel like it’s been good.”

Not only that, but dirt returned to the Cup schedule for the first time in over 50 years.

The schedule

Once a stagnant malaise, the 2020 and 2021 NASCAR Cup Series seasons brought the biggest overhauls to its 36-race schedule. 2022 brings further changes, with Gateway joining the Cup Series schedule. Furthermore, with Speedway Motorsports Inc. making significant headways with the Nashville Fairgrounds and North Wilkesboro receiving money from the state of North Carolina, we’re not finished with the overhaul, yet.

“I think short tracks are coming,” Kevin Harvick said, “and I think it’s just a matter of which one of the big tracks go away, because there’s gonna be short tracks (that) replace some of the tracks, and I think that that’s inevitable, unless we take The Clash and take the All-Star Race and make them real races that pay points, which I think everyone would be fine with, as well.

Once afraid to make changes, now almost nothing is off the table. And moving The Clash from Daytona to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum puts this to the ultimate test.

“I was just reading an article the other day, where it said if this Clash deal goes well, we can go to any football stadium in the country or, even outside the country and go put on a race,” Chase Briscoe said.

But it’s not just Cup that sees change. The XFINITY Series heads to the Pacific Northwest to race at Portland Raceway and Camping World Truck Series returns to Sonoma Raceway for the first time since 1998.

2021 Truck Series champion Ben Rhodes is excited for the coming changes.

“I mean, you look at the schedule and everything they’re doing to the Truck Series, we’re going out to Sonoma,” he said. “I raced my first cup race this year and that was at Sonoma. Zero practice, zero time in a Cup car.

“So, now that I’m going back in a truck, I’m ready to do business, you know, I’m ready to get down to work.”

Even the playoffs aren’t exempt from the overhaul, with Richmond Raceway swapped for Homestead-Miami Speedway (as well as some reshuffling). Yet for whatever reason, NASCAR is content with leaving the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

“I’d love to see the championship race rotate, every year, and create some sort of rotation between venues that you put five or six venues in, and have it rotate amongst those, so that it wasn’t the same, every year,” Harvick said.

The car

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – DECEMBER 2: NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney speaks with the media prior to the NASCAR Champion’s Banquet at Music City Center on Dec. 2, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

After COVID-19 pushed its introduction back a year, the NextGen car makes its debut in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. From top to bottom, the league and those involved cautiously hope that it’s the game-changer on and off the track it’s hyped to be.

With the influx of new ownership in 2021 and next season, to an extent, it’s already accomplished the latter.

“You know, whether it’s Brad (Keselowski) or Denny (Hamlin), Justin Marks, and you see all these new teams showing up, that’s because they see opportunity in the sport,” Joey Logano said. “I think they see it as a way to be a great investment, and not a hobby. It’s become something you can really generate some income with.”

Which previously was all but impossible, even for successful teams. Especially when sponsorship dried up, as happened to Furniture Row Racing.

“We’re not in that position,” Logano added. “I think this car will put us in that position. That’s a huge win for our sport.”

NASCAR’s future brings reasons for optimism

Pump the brakes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – DECEMBER 1: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 NASCAR Cup Series Chevrolet performs a burnout during the Burnouts on Broadway Dec. 1, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

While the future offers much reason for optimism, don’t put the cart before the horse. Especially with the inevitable learning curve that comes with the NextGen car.

“We have to be a little bit patient, because it’s the biggest change in the history of our sport,” Logano said. “Richard Petty told me that. So I know it’s true.”

I, myself, have reservations about the promises of this car, as I heard much of these same talking points with the Car of Tomorrow and the Gen-6 car.

“We have to be careful not to say this is gonna be the savior and fix all our issues, immediately,” Logano said. “It’s so different, that we have a lot to learn.”

Also, while NASCAR’s ratings and viewership numbers show signs of improvement, the free-fall continues.

NASCAR’s future brings reasons for optimism

Nobody knows

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – DECEMBER 2: NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. speaks with the media prior to the NASCAR Champion’s Banquet at Music City Center on Dec. 2, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Ultimately, however, nobody truly knows how the future will play out.

“I don’t know,” Ryan Blaney said. “I mean, I would love to tell you. Hopefully it’s good, right?”

“I mean, that’s a long ways out,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I pretty much go one year at a time. When the season starts, pretty much one week at a time.”

Unless you have a crystal ball, all you say is based on a combination of present knowledge, pattern recognition and wishful thinking.

“Whatever I say right now isn’t gonna be what it is, but (I) certainly hope (for) the best for everybody,” Chase Elliott said. “The health of racing and the product that we put out on track impacts everyone in this room. Ultimately, we need to make sure we’re doing the right things to be entertaining and to put on a good show for these fans, as we travel across the country, because if we’re not, then everybody in this room is affected negatively.”

How it all turns out, only time will tell. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

TOP IMAGE: Chris Graythen/Getty Images