NASCAR’s road course experiment pays off

By: Isaac Donsky, Staff Writer 

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

When the 2021 NASCAR schedule was released, I wrote a column highlighting the many changes that were coming. Among them was an increase in the number of road course races. This didn’t sit well with everyone. Before the 2021 season even began last Tuesday, fans (and even some drivers) were voicing their frustrations with the first major change to be encountered. The Busch Clash had been moved to the infield road course at Daytona.

A little background for the uninitiated: since 1979, NASCAR has traditionally opened the new season with an exhibition race held at Daytona. The race was originally called the Busch Clash and featured only pole winners from the previous season in a 20-lap shootout. No points or championship implications,  just a bundle of cash and bragging rights on the line.

Over the years the Clash has seen an increase in the number of cars and laps, but the premise has been the same. Go out and race as hard as you can. But the last few seasons have seen the Busch Clash devolve from a shootout into a wreck fest. Both 2019 and 2020 saw wreck-filled races that resulted in eight or less cars finishing.

Something had to change and NASCAR’s top brass explained that they’ve seen an increase in the popularity of road course racing. Thus, the Busch Clash was moved to Daytona’s infield road course for 2021. The response was lukewarm, to put it nicely.

I’ll be the first to admit that I had my doubts. Daytona’s infield course is massive. At nearly four miles in length, it was built for sportscar racing and annually holds the 24 Hours of Daytona, one of the biggest sports car events in the world. Races here usually get very spread out, and when NASCAR experimented with running a Cup race on the road course for 2020, it was, in my humble opinion, boring.

In the hours leading up to Tuesday’s Clash, the atmosphere was one of disappointment. Driver Denny Hamlin had expressed frustration that the Clash had been moved to the road course. Former Daytona ace Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued to argue on Twitter that the Clash should be returned to a 20-lap shootout. Lastly, the general reaction on NASCAR social media from the fans was one of anticipated boredom. Turns out we were all very, very wrong.

The Clash ended up being an exciting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of race. The field did not get as spread out as expected, and this led to intense side-by-side action. That boredom that I and many others had feared was nowhere to be found. And it all came to a head with a fantastic finish as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott crashed while battling for the lead in the final turn, allowing Kyle Busch to slip past to win.

So what is the moral of this story? Wait to judge things until they pass. I was initially skeptical of this move by NASCAR but it turned out to be a fantastic idea. It now has me even more excited to see if any of the other schedule changes for 2021 will be just as good.

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