OPINION: NASCAR on the Indy road course was great – until it wasn't

OPINION: NASCAR on the Indy road course was great – until it wasn't

Any reflection about what happened at in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis needs to be broken into two parts – before lap 79 and after lap 79.

Let’s start with before lap 79, when life was good. NASCAR and the Speedway were headed toward a successful day running the Cup Series race on the road course for the first time. The event was flowing by, and there was no unnecessary drama.

Coming into the weekend, you might have said that NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval were on a break as they went on a date with the road course. The event was added to the Cup schedule after a successful 2020 showing with the Xfinity Series – and also because, quite frankly, the racing on the oval has been subpar.

Through two stages, it felt OK to declare that NASCAR and the Indianapolis oval are not on a break, but have broken up. Indy was fun again. The racing was competitive. The atmosphere around the track had a feeling of positivity that hasn’t been at Indy in years.

For quite a while now, it has felt like a trip to Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400 on the oval was more about the allure of Indianapolis than what happened on the racetrack. Indianapolis is a famed facility, so competing there is special given its history in motorsports. Never mind that the racing has been terrible for years, and different aero packages haven’t helped.

Moving the Cup Series race to the road course eliminates Indianapolis being a crown jewel (although others might disagree, given the infatuation with all things Indy) as it’s just another road course race. The move needed to be made, though. And while seven road course races on the schedule is too many, the Indianapolis road course is a necessary one to have if the oval is the alternative.

There was a lot to like about Cup’s move away from the IMS oval. Nigel Kinrade / Motorsport Images

Racing on the oval became nothing more than logging laps and waiting to see if something, anything, worth talking about, would happen. Like alliance teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. wrecking each other for the lead in 2017. Or Denny Hamlin blowing a tire from the race lead with less than 10 laps to go last season.

But on Sunday, there were times when it was hard to keep track of what happened in a single lap. Just take the aggressive racing through the field in the second stage. Drivers battled each other and the race course, and at the front, it was an entertaining triple threat-bout between Brad Keselowski, William Byron, and Chase Elliott.

Attendance, according to track president Doug Boles, was up over last year. Fans were all over the facility between the grandstands and infield.

The weather was great. The racing was good. Attendance was up. There were many positives to take from most of Sunday, and like Taylor Swift once sang, it’ll be fine if NASCAR and the Indianapolis oval were to never, ever get back together.

But after lap 79 is another story

Things were good until they weren’t, and all because of a curb. Seriously, you can’t make stuff like this up.

Boles said there was no indication that the curb in Turn 6 would be a problem, and the Speedway and NASCAR did not have any issues Saturday, or last year. It was an unfortunate situation that arose for whatever reason in the Cup Series, and it marred what had been a fun day.

NASCAR and the Speedway will learn for the future, so there is no reason to get all up in arms about the situation. Except, that was just the start of the ridiculousness, and the curb was not the only thing officials need to clean up – no pun intended.

After the first red flag for the disaster in Turn 6 and the field went back under yellow conditions, they stayed under yellow conditions for what seemed a frustratingly long time.

Fluid from a damaged car required additional attention, and it was never cleared satisfactorily. Multiple times, the field was given the one-to-go signal before more cleanup was needed, or something else, like a rogue sway bar laying on track, happened. Then came another crash and another red flag. Suddenly, it was no longer enjoyable.

Everyone needed to do better. Chaos and controversy are becoming far too familiar in NASCAR, and it’s overshadowing everything else. How things can become so complicated or quickly go off the rails in a professional racing series is sometimes hard to understand.

But it’s why we’ll never be able to talk about the inaugural Cup Series road course event at Indianapolis without splitting the day into two parts. What a disappointment.