NASCAR has already moved out of its comfort zone for scheduling. In just the past two seasons, it’s replaced ovals with road courses, moved the Busch Light Clash to a super-short track, and prepared to try a street course in Chicago and a retro track for its All-Star Race in 2023.
What it hasn’t done in that time is move the Championship 4 weekend around, and that’s probably a mistake. Phoenix Raceway has been a Cup Series venue since 1988, but it’s neither iconic nor conducive to compelling racing. NASCAR should rethink where it holds its most important race.
The case for staying at Phoenix Raceway isn’t overwhelming
The modernization project was completed in October 2018 at a reported cost of $178 million Phoenix Raceway beyond the standards at many NASCAR Cup Series tracks. Given the investment and the resulting improvements, it is understandable that NASCAR will conduct the Championship 4 there for the fourth consecutive season in 2023.
The mile quasi-oval with low banking isn’t unique, although the expansive apron and the pit configuration help distinguish it. As a track that the series also visits early in the season, the drivers and teams are very familiar with Phoenix. And, of course, weather isn’t likely to affect the race.
Other than that, there isn’t an argument to be made for keeping the season-ending race there. For that matter, there isn’t a case to be made for anchoring the event anywhere.
Kevin Harvick dominated from 2012-16
Future Hall of Famer Kevin Harvick scored 17 of his 60 victories from 2012-16, and the trips to Victory Lane occurred at 11 different tracks. However, six wins came at Phoenix to account for the majority of his nine victories there. Before Harvick’s peak years there, Jimmie Johnson won four of five appearances on the track from 2007-09.
Certainly, other drivers enjoy disproportionate success at certain tracks, and that is part of the case against anchoring the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway or anywhere else. The team (or manufacturer) that figures out a track better than its rivals potentially holds too much of an advantage.
Such dominance isn’t an issue in the regular season, nor is it much more of a concern in the earlier phases of the playoffs. But the possibility of it playing a role in a winner-take-all race like the Championship 4 deserves to be contemplated.
So, should NASCAR alternate between Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, the previous anchor site for the Championship 4? While that would be a start, it’s not enough. Kyle Larson conducted a master class in how to drive an entire race six inches from the wall at the South Florida track last month and might just continue doing so for the remainder of the decade.
Where else to hold the Championship 4?
Assuming NASCAR executives were inclined to move the Championship 4, the Cup Series can’t be the sole concern. Xfinity Series and the Craftsman Truck Series vehicles run differently than the Next Gen cars, so NASCAR would naturally want to strive for venues that bring out the best in everyone.
Right off the bat, the weather in the first week of November becomes a disqualifying factor for northern tracks like Loudon, Michigan, and Indianapolis. Also, forget the superspeedways. Unpredictability regarding the honoree on Victory Lane is great, but not when it’s a result of multi-car wrecks taking out multiple contenders with 75 laps to go.
Martinsville, Las Vegas, and Darlington come to mind, although anything impacting the Southern 500 has to be weighed carefully. So do Charlotte and Circuit of the Americas, and NASCAR is going to have to consider going to a road course for a championship at some point. As it stands now, making the Roval the only playoff race does not give road courses weight proportional to the number of regular-season events away from the ovals.
Throw in Phoenix, Homestead-Miami, and maybe a revamped Fontana, and NASCAR would have perhaps half a dozen candidates from which it could fashion a rotation.
Of course, NASCAR has to want to change, or else this is all just an exercise in wishful thinking. Hopefully, executives saw Joey Logano more or less wiring the field in the first year of the Next Gen car as a warning shot that bears watching.
Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column every Friday. Write to him at [email protected]