What to watch for as NASCAR enters slew of compact-schedule weekends

The condensed schedule coming up means less time for race teams to adjust their cars and more instances when they can't access them. Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire

The Chicagoland Speedway race last week wasn't simply about the event returning to July, the month it was originally scheduled for its first 10 years before it moved to the playoff opener in 2011.

Chicagoland also signified the start of a heavy dose of races during which NASCAR Cup Series teams are on the track for only two days, along with races in which the teams do not get to work on their cars after qualifying (commonly known as "impound races").

NASCAR calls these two-day Cup shows "enhanced weekends," as it offers tracks several Cup drivers on a rotating basis for fan events, tickets packages, etc.

That condensed schedule also means bunching up the prerace routine. Last weekend at Chicagoland, teams practiced Saturday morning, and qualifying took place Saturday night after the Xfinity Series race.

The next two weeks have somewhat regular schedules. Daytona this weekend is a traditional three-day show but the typical restrictor-plate-race impound, while Kentucky will be a two-day, Saturday night race before which Cup teams practice and qualify for the Xfinity race Friday night.

Kentucky won't be an impound, as NASCAR feels the track can change too much between qualifying and the race due to the Xfinity race in between.

But after Kentucky, three of the next seven races are two-day Cup shows with impounds: Pocono (July 28-29), Watkins Glen (Aug. 4-5) and Indianapolis (Sept. 8-9).

Bristol (Aug. 17-18) will be a two-day Cup show but without an impound, which is normal. Darlington (Aug. 31-Sept. 2) will be an impound with a practice Friday, qualifying Saturday and the race Sunday of the holiday weekend. That will be the only non-restrictor-plate impound where the Xfinity race occurs after Cup qualifying.

In the nine weeks through the end of the regular season, the only "traditional" three-day weekends when teams can work on their cars throughout will occur at New Hampshire (July 20-22) and Michigan (Aug. 10-12).

Two-day Cup shows with impound during the playoffs will take place for the October races at Talladega and Martinsville. The Saturday night playoff race in September at Richmond will be a normal two-day show without impound.

Here are five things to watch for these weekends with less Cup activity and less time for teams to work on their cars:

1. Fan reaction to condensed schedule

NASCAR hopes there will be more opportunities for fans to engage with Cup drivers, but there is no set formula for how the tracks will use the drivers' time during a two-day Cup show.

Some tracks have fan fests during the race weekend, while others use drivers for other appearances or ticket specials. Some tracks have a mix of both.

Will fans turn out a day before Cup cars are on the track if they can see their favorite driver more up-close than before? Will they see value by paying for a meet-and-greet or a question-and-answer forum with a driver? Chicagoland, which experienced record-breaking heat, likely wasn't the best indicator.

The tracks still will have on-track action on Fridays, but won't feature Cup cars. Chicagoland and Watkins Glen have four days of activity, while both Bristol and Kentucky have Truck series races lined up for the Thursday night of their Saturday night Cup race weekends. Indianapolis will have a Thursday night USAC midget $15,000-to-win race -- big money for these drivers -- at a track it is building inside Turn 3.

Talladega already has announced it will open the grandstands for free for anyone who wants to watch trucks qualify that Friday (the Cup cars don't get on track until Saturday of that weekend).

While NASCAR experimented with having qualifying a few hours before the Cup race at a few events last year, it has scrapped that idea this season. That schedule didn't allow for time for fans with garage passes to see much on race day.

2. How teams use practice time

Teams will have to decide how much time, if any, that they will focus on qualifying in practice, as they won't be able to make adjustments after qualifying (unless they want to start in the rear). That means they will primarily qualify in race trim in order to have better track position for the start of the race, unless they want to give up a little long-run speed.

The stage breaks during the race informs teams that they will have a pit stop at certain points in the race to make adjustments, but there is only so much a team can do during a pit stop.

"Qualifying is too important on the Cup side to not do a qualifying run [in practice]," said Kevin Harvick, who has five wins this year. "If you can be on the pole or in the top part of the top-5, it sets you up a lot better for the first stage and puts you in a lot better position from a pit stall standpoint."

3. Will this hurt struggling teams?

The more time to practice and work on a car over a race weekend should help struggling teams dial in their car if it is not strong when it comes off the hauler -- in theory.

Many crew chiefs say there isn't much a driver or a team can do once it gets to the track to significantly improve the car. All the main setup work is done through simulation back at the shop.

"Nowadays, especially when you get here, you are just so committed with what you have and not only that, but when you show up and you unload, you have the most confidence in what your team brought to the racetrack when you get here," said Chase Elliott, who predicted that practice might improve the car by only a couple of spots. "So any changes from that is a little bit of a guess from what you had the most confidence in leaving the shop.

"I don't really think it would matter if you had two minutes of practice or two hours. The people that are going to run good are going to run good before they got here."

The worst part of this schedule is for anyone who wrecks in practice and has to get the backup car turned around quickly for qualifying and the race.

4. Will the races have the same buzz?

Having no track activity on Friday often means little local media coverage and less social media engagement. People are known to take a several minutes during the Friday workday to browse the internet compared to a Saturday, when they are out doing activities.

NASCAR hopes it doesn't lose any buzz when it doesn't have Friday track activity. When someone wins the pole on Friday, that news is often in newspapers/websites on Saturday or on the crawl/ticker of sports shows. In a time when NASCAR appears to be battling a ratings slide, it can't afford less time on the track to result in fewer people watching.

The lineup at Chicagoland wasn't set until 9:55 p.m. ET following technical inspection, making it tricky for newspapers to publish a lineup for their morning editions.

And while NASCAR is trying to push fantasy games on its fans, having a lineup set less than 17 hours before an event is not ideal for those wanting to do research before setting their lineups.

5. Will it save money?

NASCAR teams say travel is among their biggest costs. The two-day shows and impound are designed to save the teams money by cutting out a travel day and eliminating special oils or certain parts or pieces (such as brake pads at Martinsville) that teams would use for qualifying but change out before the race.

It also saves money for television partners if they can eliminate a travel day and an extra day when they need a satellite.