NASCAR Cup series returning to IMS road course in 2022, with plans to return to oval imminent

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway confirmed the NASCAR Cup series' return to the track's road course for 2022 on Wednesday, but both parties have acknowledged there are plans to return to the IMS oval in the near-future. Whether that will come in the form of alternating the track which the Cup competes on at IMS on a year-to-year basis or running both in a single weekend, remains to be seen.

For now, the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard will be held next year July 31 on the road course, joined by IndyCar, which will run its second IMS road race of the year the day before, Saturday, July 30. Though it hasn't been formally announced, it's expected the Xfinity series will also run on the road course for a weekend schedule similar to this year's.

Last month, Cup ran its first race at IMS not on the famed 2.5-mile oval track, with NASCAR officials and track owner Roger Penske opting last fall to shake up one of NASCAR's "crown jewel races" -- albeit, one that had felt stagnant in recent years. Passing opportunities had been few and far between for some time, barring a competitor making a mistake running around the flat oval track.

The Brickyard 400 –– now known as the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard –– is a NASCAR  fan favorite.

Still, most of NASCAR's veteran voices had for years pleaded publicly for both entities not to take away, or in any way alter, the event that put them on a level playing field with IndyCar back in 1994 when the first Brickyard 400 was run.

That change came anyway, announced nearly a year ago, that after the Xfinity series had run on the road course with IndyCar during the tripleheader weekend in 2020, Cup cars would join the fray too. And it came with very, very mixed success.

From a business standpoint, IMS drew just under 120,000 fans for the three-day weekend, which saw IndyCar and Xfinity both practice (and IndyCar qualify) Friday, before both raced Saturday along with a Cup practice. Sunday was Cup's qualifying and race day, and even with less action, it drew 20% more fans to the track than the jam-packed Saturday. Compared to 2019, Sunday's Cup day at IMS was up 12% on ticket sales.

But those numbers largely reflected an audience with a high level of anticipation about what they'd see on-track. That product, particularly at the end of the race, was severely diminished when the track's curbing on the inside of Turn 6 blew apart.

Christopher Bell (20) and Ryan Preece (37) slide out during a massive crash caused by a piece of curbing Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NASCAR's issues on the road course

The initial damage to the curb was believed to have been caused by one car's splitter lodging itself between the metal curbing and the asphalt midway through the race. Track workers had to pry that up to removed the splitter, and the curb wasn't the same afterward.

Through the race, the 40-car field began more frequently to take a direct line over that curbing, rather than grazing it at a 45-degree angle as they had in practice and qualifying. That constant pounding, combined with the mid-race track work and the lack of a ride-height limit on the Cup cars that allow them and their splitters to run as low to the ground as possible, eventually led to the first of several late incidents. With five laps to go, a piece of debris could be seen flying from the curb right before Martin Truex Jr. spun into a nearby tire barrier. The following lap, the race front-runners ran directly over the curb with no issue, but a couple of cars back, William Byron was sent into a massive spin, causing chaos that collected Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Daniel Suarez, Christopher Bell and Ryan Preece.

The curb was then removed during a lengthy red flag period, but it left the much higher "sausage curb" more in play, should drivers want to take an even deeper inside line on the chicane, which Michael McDowell did on the ensuing restart. Another red flag quickly followed.

Possible solutions:Boles discusses IMS' options to avoid NASCAR curb chaos in '22

Insider:Chaotic first NASCAR IMS road race ends with more questions than answers

The final overtime included more chaos unrelated to Turn 6, but it was a muddy end to what had otherwise been a far more riveting race than Cup on the oval had seen in years. Instead of high praise, IMS president Doug Boles was left to figure out how best to fix a problem he and Penske had never dreamed would crop up. The track had used the same style curbing since 2014 without issue, and it hadn't been so much as a mention during either of the first two Xfinity races.

Christopher Bell (20) and Daniel Suarez (99) slide out during a massive crash caused by a piece of curbing Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Last month, Boles said IMS essentially had two options: add a sausage curb over the top of the normal curbing that Indy cars and sportscars use for the road course, which would in turn send any cars running over it airborne, the hope being that drivers would be forced to take that chicane slower and a bit wider.

The other option Boles presented to IndyStar was to bring the grass on the inside of Turn 6 closer to the track limits, rather than the asphalt that currently spreads far wider than the course. Driving in a straight line over a somewhat penalizing curb through asphalt may be a wash or a gain for drivers through that section. Hitting grass while doing so would be a solid deterrent. 

Boles said last month he hoped NASCAR would have the ability to test the track with a handful of drivers before next July's race, though nothing will truly be able to simulate 40 cars running 80 laps or more over a single racing line, or what new line they may create during the heat of the action.

“Ultimately, you want to put together something that’s safe for the drivers and allows them to stay competitive, but also doesn’t put the sanctioning body in a place where they have to police track limits," Boles told IndyStar in August. “You want it to be self-policing.”

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Joey Logano (22) enters the final ten laps at the 2019 Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019.

NASCAR's imminent return to the oval

Nearly five years ago, Boles told IndyStar he and Penske Entertainment Corp. president and CEO Mark Miles traveled to New York City to meet with NASCAR brass to discuss how to revitalize one of the series' iconic events. Most years, the Brickyard 400 would be one of NASCAR's most-watched races on TV, but attendance had waned as the on-track product dropped off.

So Boles pitched something he knew would get the ball rolling.

"We said, 'Let's do a doubleheader, where they run the road course one day and flip around and run the oval the next,'" Boles told IndyStar. "It was our 'throwback' idea."

But as he explained, the prospect was initially rebuffed. The plan would mean teams would have to bring two separate cars to the track, along with backups and a litany of different spare parts, which ultimately makes the weekend twice as expensive. As Boles explained, hosting two races at IMS would eliminate a points-paying race from the agreement the sanctioning body has with the teams, and they'd also have to steal a race from another venue which, with so much jockeying for race weekends at the moment, is perhaps as tough as its ever been.

"It got complicated," he said, "and we totally get that. But what we really did in that meeting was, we wanted to spark some conversation there about, 'How do we get the Brickyard going again?' Part of what came out of that is the weekend we had this year."

On Wednesday, Boles reiterated that sentiment, saying in a release: "There was no shortage of drama and excitement in the inaugural Cup Series race on the road course, and we are confident the competition will be even more compelling in 2022. We look forward to once again showcasing the versatility of NASCAR racing at IMS.”

Ultimately, the groundwork laid this year, in proving the Cup cars could hold an exciting race on the road course, was a near-success. With the professionals in place on both sides, there's no reason to think NASCAR and IMS won't be able to find a solution to create a road course capable of hosting Cup cars for a safe and exciting race. Should that play out again in 2022, both sides may then finally have something few tracks have: a turnkey oval and road course.

The novelty, then, will be the likely rotation between the two -- rather than running both in a single year like Charlotte and Daytona -- and both heightened importance in winning the event on a driver's preferred track and the oscillating forms of racing fans will be treated to each year.