The next two weekends are, I believe, particularly important for NASCAR in a lot of ways.
Last year's Daytona 500 went pretty well. The season got off to a pretty good start with the 50th running of the sport's biggest race and there was some momentum as we headed out West to Auto Club Speedway and then on to Las Vegas.
Then, the California race weekend was a disaster. A combination of bad luck with the weather, bad decisions by NASCAR and just plain bad leadership by the people running the California track made for a simply awful weekend that lasted well into the evening on Monday with both the Nationwide and Cup series races being completed on that day.
Then came Las Vegas, where Carl Edwards won but then faced major penalties for a rules violation and Jeff Gordon had a scary wreck that exposed a weakness in the safety features that had been left incomplete when the Vegas track was redone. SAFER barriers were not in place on the wall that Gordon's car hit, and thankfully safety features of the new car helped prevent him from serious injury.
This year's season didn't get off to as good of a start as last year's did. The rain-shortened Daytona 500 left a lot of questions that fans would like to see answered. A lot of what happened was out of anyone's control, but the fact that the 500 started at 3:40 p.m. is not one of those things. The late start limited options on resuming the race after a rain delay and NASCAR needs to look very seriously at starting its races earlier as a result of the lessons taught by what happened Sunday evening.
That's why the start time for Sunday's race at California makes absolutely no sense. The start time is listed at 3 p.m. Pacific time, which is 6 p.m. Eastern. The green flag will probably more in the 6:15-6:20 range. That's pitiful.
There's no reason to start a race that late in the Pacific time zone, especially this weekend. The race won't be half over when the Academy Awards show comes on television. Why would Fox want to compete with the Oscars for viewers? I know you're thinking there's not a big crossover audience, but the idea of moving races around to get more viewers is to attract people who wouldn't automatically be inclined to watch. That's not happening against the Oscars.
It's like NASCAR is tone deaf. Fans are SCREAMING about the late time starts. Television networks pay a lot of money to the sport and their wishes should be considered. But those wishes shouldn't be outright commands. There's a balance and right now I think NASCAR's on the wrong side of the scale.
It's also important that we see some good racing over the next two weekends.
The car of tomorrow isn't going away, and the teams are still learning about it. But given the state of things in the NASCAR economy right now, two straight weeks of races where the leader can't be touched is the absolute worst thing the sport needs right now.
There is intrigue going into these two races. Without testing, nobody really knows how good any team is going to be. It could be that a team or two has found something in the offseason that will be so good they will even be surprised at how well their cars go. Other teams might try things that don't work. That could jumble things up, and NASCAR needs something like that.
NASCAR needs in the worst way two weekends' worth of nice weather, good racing and compelling storylines from its inital trip West this season.