My Brain on NASCAR: Times they are a-changin’ in racin’

col-cathyelliottCome gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.

– Bob Dylan, “The Times, They Are a-Changin’ ”

I’ve been preaching for a number of years now that our NASCAR, the one we grew up with, the one that broke into the mainstream thanks to the drivers we have watched and supported for years, is in a transition phase. In five or maybe even three years from now, it may be nearly unrecognizable. It pains me to admit it because I’ve never really thought of him as a NASCAR prophet, but it seems that Bob Dylan saw it coming long before I did.

Some people don’t want to think about this. I have friends who get so emotional when the subject of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s impending retirement comes up that they actually get tears in their eyes. My own mother sniffled through all 400 miles of Jeff Gordon’s last race. This season, I find myself pulling for the No. 14 every week until something or someone reminds me that Clint Bowyer, not Tony Stewart, is behind the wheel.

We saw this in action at Michigan International Speedway on June 18, when Kyle Larson, after starting the race from the pole position, held off Chase Elliott to take the checkered flag, his second NASCAR Cup Series win of the season and the third of his career.

Yes, Jimmie Johnson is still dominant and, after signing a three-year contract extension (through the 2020 season) with Hendrick Motorsports, will in all likelihood win that elusive eighth series championship, prompting legions of Earnhardt and Petty fans to take to their beds with a case of the vapors.

Even the series schedule is in a state of what I would call some pretty extreme transition. When I saw it for the first time, I believe I actually squawked out loud from a combination of disbelief and delight. When NASCAR decides to take action, it really gives you something to talk about.

In case you missed it, let’s talk about a few of the changes that will be implemented next year.

We’ll start with the biggest loser, which in my opinion is Chicagoland Speedway. Chicago had a peach of a date – the opening event of the 10-week Chase – but will now move to late June/early July, a lead-in to the popular mid-summer race at Daytona (formerly known as the Firecracker 400. I wish it had stayed that way). Chicagoland is not known for great racing and will lose a lot of momentum since it is no longer part of the Chase. It will likely suffer as a result.

A really cool change for next year is the introduction of an entirely new type of race – the roval. Charlotte Motor Speedway’s fall Chase race will be run not on the 1.5-mile oval, but on a 2.42-mile “roval,” which combines Charlotte’s road course and its traditional track. Please don’t groan; this does add another road race to the schedule, but the plus side is that it will be the final race of Stage 1 of the Chase, so anything could happen.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway went all in this time around by snatching one of New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s two races AND taking the Chase opener away from Chicagoland. Vegas is one of the most popular stops on the circuit for both fans and drivers, and starting the Chase there only ups the ante.

The final race of the regular season will move from Richmond to The Brickyard or, as I like to call it, from beating-and-banging to boring. This is the race that sets the field for the Chase, and in the past it has been a real nail-biter. At the Brickyard, however, you may find yourself snoozing on the sofa rather than sitting on the edge of your seat.

Remember the Winston Million? Well, check this out. Beginning in 2018, the final three races of the regular season will be run at Bristol (the night race), Darlington, and the Brickyard. I saw on the Internet that some folks have already nicknamed it “The Triple.” I haven’t heard of any special marketing plan for these three prestigious events, but we still have the 2017 season to get through, so I’m sure there’s a savvy somebody out there who will come up with something.

At the rate we’re going, I can’t wait to learn what musical entertainment has been booked for the championship banquet. The powers-that-be might want to consider Bob Dylan. That’s one Nobel Laureate who really knows his NASCAR.

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