DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The midpoint of the NASCAR season is here, making one last holiday weekend run at its birthplace, trying as always to deliver a white-knuckled thrill-fest on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
Despite Saturday’s rainout, the series is riding a high into Sunday’s rescheduled race following Alex Bowman’s first career Cup victory last week and a new rules package that NASCAR leadership believes has immensely improved the on-track product.
“It’s been an extraordinary year,” Steve Phelps, who took over as president of NASCAR late last season, said Friday. “I think the racing product has been exceptional. By and large, the fans are incredibly excited about what they see.”
But before the sport can move into the future, it must say goodbye to part of its tradition. Running a race on the Fourth of July weekend at Daytona, NACAR’s marquee track, has been an integral part of the schedule since 1959.
The event is being moved to August next season as the regular-season finale, with Indianapolis Motor Speedway taking over the holiday weekend slot. The change is part of a scheduling shake-up that fans have demanded, with more changes coming in 2021.
Photo: Phelan Ebenhack / Associated Press
Saturday’s heavy rain spoiled the pre-race pomp and circumstances surrounding the proud NASCAR event. From 1959 through 1987, the race ran on July 4 before being moved to the Saturday of the closest weekend. From 1959 through 1997, the race started no later than 11 a.m.
The event was moved to prime time in 1998 and heavily promoted as the first under the lights at Daytona. But wildfires across Florida forced that event to be postponed until October.
That race aside, no driver remembers anything but racing in Daytona over the long Independence Day weekend. Many have lamented the loss of the event this week because not only does Daytona in the summer mark the midpoint of the NASCAR season, but drivers have used the beach and the birthplace of American stock-car racing as an annual holiday getaway that culminates in an intense 400-mile race.
But Daytona next year will be rise in prestige as the final event for a driver to snag a slot in the playoff field, which means the stakes will be higher and, at nearly six weeks later, perhaps protected from the unpredictable Florida weather.
“I think traditions are important and as a sport we stay true to a lot of traditions, but I also think if you don’t change tradition, you’ll always be where you’re at,” 2018 NASCAR Cup series champion Joey Logano said. “When I think about where this race is going to be placed next year, the final race before the playoffs, here we go. There’s a good chance the fastest car and the best teams usually win, but there’s also a good chance that they all crash and someone that doesn’t typically win wins this race.
“I think that piece of it, even though it’s not on the Fourth of July and we’re all so used to it being on this weekend, this race being here, but I think where it’s going to be placed is just going to add drama and I don’t see where that’s a bad thing in sports at all.”
But driver Kyle Busch is among those sorry to see the holiday weekend race move.
“I’ll be frank, I’m kind of disappointed,” Busch said. “Overall, just being in Daytona for July 4 has always been cool. Having the opportunity to go to the beach, having the opportunity to do that, whether that be on Thursday or Friday, not having a lot going on. We are going to miss that, the fireworks show, things like that. Now that’s going to be in Indy. Yeah, there’s no beach there.”
Jenna Fryer is an Associated Press writer.