NASCAR schedule change rumor heats up after Indianapolis

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) /

The debate over whether NASCAR should run the road course or the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway now has a clear answer.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of NASCAR arriving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But after 27 years of racing on the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) oval, NASCAR moved the traditional Brickyard 400 away from the oval and replaced it with a race on the 13-turn, 2.439-mile (3.935-kilometer) road course, drawing mixed reactions.

However, after this past weekend’s race on the road course, it has become obvious where NASCAR’s future lies at the historic facility.

The Brickyard 400 was a crown jewel race from its inception in 1994. It was a race every driver looked forward to and wanted to win. When the event was moved to the road course in 2021, some viewed it as the total removal of a crown jewel event on the schedule.

While some of the prestige remained after the switch to the road course, it wasn’t the same as it was when the race was contested on the oval for more than two and a half decades.

Much of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s illustrious history both in NASCAR and IndyCar lies on the oval. Races have been held on the oval for over a century and have made Indianapolis the “Racing Capital of the World”.

And with that in mind, returning to the oval in 2024 is the best move for NASCAR going forward.

For starters, any Cup Series race on the Indianapolis oval is by all accounts a “crown jewel” event. It may not be the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, or the Coca-Cola 600, but the history and overall prestige of the track makes it extremely important to everybody.

Ahead of this past race weekend at Indianapolis, several drivers, including Indiana native Chase Briscoe and Kyle Busch, explicitly mentioned that they would prefer to race on the oval instead of the road course.

However, the biggest reasons behind the Cup Series’ 2021 move to the road course, which was preceded by the Xfinity Series’ move in 2020, are the same ones that could cause significant pushback when it comes to a potential return to the oval.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, many NASCAR fans were not fond of the racing product at Indianapolis. The races were largely viewed as boring with little passing and limited excitement. And when there were races that would defy this sentiment, they would often thrive on late-race chaos, which was seen in the 2017 running of the event.

But a lot has changed in terms of the overall racing product since the Cup Series most recently raced on the oval in 2020. The introduction of the Gen 7 cars in 2022 has revitalized racing at many larger oval tracks, and races that were once viewed as lackluster have since become action-packed events.

Given the nature of the track, this is a trend that would likely be seen at Indianapolis as well. NASCAR events on the oval would have a great chance to become much more competitive and exciting.

On top of this, the road course has failed to put on a truly exciting NASCAR Cup Series race in three attempts.

NASCAR’s debut at the track in 2020 was well-received, as the Xfinity Series race was an extremely competitive one with a thrilling finish. Hometown driver Briscoe took the checkered flag. However, the Cup Series has failed to replicate the success of that event.

The inaugural running of the event was marred by controversy and late-race chaos. With under 10 laps to go, a curb in turn six broke, causing a massive accident that included William Byron, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano.

While the broken parts of the curb were removed, the remaining parts acted like a “ski jump” if they were hit, and on the ensuing restart, Michael McDowell hit the curb, causing another major accident.

The final restart was marred in controversy when leader Denny Hamlin and second place Briscoe made contact entering turn one, causing Briscoe to slide through the grass. Briscoe ultimately received a stop-and-go penalty from NASCAR, but before he served it, he spun Hamlin out of the lead on the same lap, handing the win to A.J. Allmendinger.

The 2022 race was once again marred by controversy and chaos, with turn one being the specific culprit. Following several cautions caused by aggressive driving, Ross Chastain attempted to take a “shortcut” by driving through the turn’s access lane, rather than taking the conventional turn.

He was later penalized for the move, taking him out of contention for a good finish, but controversy still clouded the event.

This past weekend’s race on the road course was chaos-free, but the racing was largely lackluster, and the event only saw one caution on lap three of 85 after an incident involving Justin Haley and Joey Logano.

The Brickyard 400’s poor racing product was one of the primary reasons for NASCAR’s move to the road course. But the road course hasn’t solved the issue.

For years, the Brickyard 400 would sell out. The track would host over 250,000 fans on race day. However, this started to change after a disastrous 2008 race, which saw tire wear issues which were so bad that the tires would often blow out after only about 10 laps.

From there, attendance gradually dropped and finally bottomed out for the aforementioned 2017 race, which saw roughly 35,000 fans in attendance — less than 15% of the track’s capacity.

While attendance did improve for the 2018 and 2019 events, it remained lackluster and was low enough to warrant the move to the road course in 2021.

However, as attendance declined at Indianapolis, it was also declining at almost every other track as well. In less than a decade and a half, the annual attendance for all 36 races on the schedule was nearly sliced in half, bottoming out in the late 2010s.

But as the sport moved into the 2020s, that trend has reversed at many venues. With COVID-19-related restrictions being lifted over the course of the 2021 season, many tracks immediately started to see an increase in attendance compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers.

Additionally, the introduction of the Gen 7 car in 2022 helped to accelerate this new trend. In the first half of the 2022 season, tracks such as Talladega Superspeedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Atlanta Motor Speedway all saw their highest attendance figures in recent years.

This trend has continued in 2023, with many tracks reporting sellouts. The November championship race at Phoenix Raceway even announced a total sellout in June. With this trend likely to continue in 2024, a Brickyard weekend on the oval would almost certainly see a significant uptick in attendance.

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This, coupled with the impressive Gen 7 racing product on bigger tracks, could bring back much of the aura we once saw surrounding this crown jewel event. With NASCAR running a Gen 7 test on the layout following the road course race, the return to the oval could be imminent, provided the test goes down without any issues.