2020 NASCAR Monster Energy Series schedule has race fans buzzing

My affinity for NASCAR racing began some 40 years ago. It nearly ended before it ever began. Let me explain.

In the late 1970s a few friends rented a big yellow Ryder truck and we made our way to Michigan International Speedway. A dozen guys stuck a keg in the back of the truck and drove north on Saturday to spend the night in the infield before the race on Sunday.

We had to wait in what we called the “outfield” for racing activity to conclude before being allowed to enter the infield. Several hours of hot sun and partying took place before a verbal altercation between one of us and an older gentleman ensued.

Fueled by the firewater one of our guys suggested we could overturn the fellow’s converted school bus. I knew that was a joke, the guy didn’t. We soon found out that he had been coming to the track for years and had a lot of friends. We found out when a large number of people showed up.

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed — the police showing up might have helped that along — and we spent the rest of the weekend concentrating on racing, not fighting. Had an altercation taken place, many of us would likely have never seen any of the Sunday race.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Come Sunday, I became mesmerized. All of the team pennants and colorful clothing worn by race fans coupled with the various paint schemes of the racing machines made me a race fan for life. I was stunned several years ago when Sports Illustrated ran a story on NASCAR racing that was done in black and white. In my opinion they missed one of the main reasons people love the sport and that is the beauty and pageantry of race day.

In the early years I just watched the racing, but eventually I chose a driver to root for and that was Sterling Marlin. I have a tendency to like second generation drivers and how could I not root for a guy whose father “Coo Coo” was also a racer? Since Sterling’s retirement I have not picked another favorite. Now I run a NASCAR Fantasy League, so I root for ALL of my 15 fantasy drivers.

Racing today is different from when I first started following the sport. One thing that NASCAR has always done is embrace change. There aren’t many sports that make rule changes during the season. NASCAR will do it week to week. If you are looking for an example, changes to group qualifying procedures have been issued in recent weeks.

Didn’t think “clogging” would have anything to do with racing, did you?

Many changes are small, but some are huge. A few years ago NASCAR decided it needed a playoff format like other sports. At the time, the season champion was determined by points accumulated during the racing season. One driver won the title even though he didn’t win a single race. That fact seemed to rankle some fans, though I was not one of them.

I’m not sure I was in favor of the playoff concept, but I must admit it has been exciting. The first 26 races are considered the regular season. NASCAR allows 16 drivers to get in the first round of playoffs. If a driver wins a race in the regular season he almost assuredly qualifies for the postseason. In the unlikely event that more than 16 drivers go to Victory Circle in those first 26 races, then “points” accumulation will come into play.

That is not very likely as the first seven races this season have produced only four different winners. So race winners are in and the other spots are filled by points. The 10-race playoff begins and the field is cut to 12 after three races. Win one of those races and you move on. After the next three races the field is reduced by four and the same thing happens after three more events.

Finally four drivers will race against each other for the title in the season finale. Highest finisher among the four competitors wins the championship.

So why is the change in the schedule drawing so much water cooler talk? Well, let’s take a look.

The 2020 season will begin as it always does with the Daytona 500. This is NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl and it is always going to be the first race right out of the chute. The finale has been moved however. It has been in Homestead since the playoff format was introduced. Next year it will be in Phoenix. Homestead’s date will move to March.

Daytona’s second race of the season has always been on the Fourth of July weekend. No more. Indianapolis Motor Speedway will get the holiday race. Stay tuned for where Daytona resurfaces.

One of the more interesting twists to the schedule is a back-to-back race weekend at Pocono in June. Races will be run on Saturday, June 27, and Sunday, June 28. If you have been thinking of going to Pocono, next year would be a good time for the trip. You can get two races for the price of — well, two — but it would be a great weekend experience. I’m guessing those tickets will be hard to come by.

Daytona is being moved to the last race of the regular season replacing Richmond. With all cars having a chance to win in the draft at the Super Speedways, this could be crazy. Someone who was almost assured of a spot in the playoffs could be bumped if a new winner emerges.

The other key events will be the three elimination races. Bristol will be race No. 29, the Charlotte Roval race will be No. 32 and Martinsville will be No. 35. Why does the image of Matt Kenseth taking out Joey Logano keep popping into my head?

But hey, all of this is next season. We have a lot of racing to go in 2019. You can watch the beating and banging from the Bull Ring this afternoon.

Bristol is always exciting no matter where it is on the schedule.

Al Stephenson is a columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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