Watkins Glen's NASCAR Cup Series race moves to September, makes playoff debut

For the first time since the NASCAR Cup Series made Watkins Glen International a permanent part of its schedule in 1986, the track's annual race will be held in September instead of August while also becoming one of the 10 playoff events.

The change was announced Wednesday when NASCAR released its schedule for the 2024 season.

Watkins Glen's Go Bowling at The Glen weekend will be held Sept. 14 and 15 in 2024. Its Xfinity Series event will return at 3 p.m. Sept. 14 and be televised on USA Network. The Go Bowling at The Glen Cup Series race is set for 3 p.m. Sept. 15, with USA Network also providing TV coverage.

Watkins Glen takes over a playoff spot held by Texas Motor Speedway, whose race will move to April 14. The change gives the playoffs two road-course races, with WGI joining the Charlotte Roval event that will be held Oct. 13.

“We’ve had kind of status quo the past few years, and I know we shook it up a ton three or four years ago,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing development and strategy. “I think the diversity that we have and types of tracks in that first round is going to be fun to watch.”

Aug 20, 2023; Watkins Glen, New York, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) leads a group of cars during the Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 20, 2023; Watkins Glen, New York, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) leads a group of cars during the Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

What new WGI date means for NASCAR

Watkins Glen was the penultimate race before the playoff field was set in 2022 and 2023. For first time it becomes one of 10 playoff races that decide the season champion from a field of 16 drivers determined by regular-season results.

"We're excited to have Watkins Glen International in the NASCAR playoffs, creating an even more competitive atmosphere for drivers and teams, and more intense racing for fans," Chip Wile, senior vice president and chief track properties officer at NASCAR, said in a press release.

"We've produced some incredible race weekends at Watkins Glen and we're looking forward to this new territory."

More: Q&A: Michael Printup looks back at 14 years at Watkins Glen, discusses new job with SVRA

What new date means for spectators

The other side of the change is Watkins Glen moves out of an August window in which the road course's Cup Series event has grown to be one of the most popular in the series. It was voted "Best NASCAR Track" in the USA TODAY 10Best Readers' Choice poll in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020.

While NASCAR no longer releases attendance figures, the 2015 crowd at Watkins Glen was announced by former track president Michael Printup as a record, topping the 95,800 in 2002. Printup retired as track president in late June and is now president of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association. Clay Campbell, president of NASCAR Mid-Atlantic Region, was tabbed WGI's interim president.

This year's Watkins Glen race was held Aug. 20 and won by William Byron.

It was announced grandstand seating sold out for the eighth consecutive Watkins Glen Cup weekend. At the beginning of August, a third consecutive sellout for infield camping was announced.

More: William Byron cruises at Watkins Glen for 5th Cup Series win of season

The new date moves the race weekend into the start of the school year in New York state. Traditionally, students in New York return just after Labor Day. School begins in August in numerous other states, including nearby Pennsylvania.

The move also puts Watkins Glen on the same day as regular-season NFL games for the first time.

Watkins Glen has hosted the Cup Series annually since 1986, with the exception of the 2020 race that was moved to Daytona International Speedway's road course because of COVID. NASCAR's top series also held races at Watkins Glen in 1957, 1964 and 1965.

Last year's Cup race at The Glen was held Aug. 21, the latest it has been on the modern calendar. The earliest it was held was Aug. 4 in 2019.

How The Glen fits into playoff schedule

Atlanta Motor Speedway will become the first playoff race on Sept. 8, a role held by Darlington Raceway this year. Darlington moves to the final race of the regular season, supplanting Daytona International Speedway's second date in that regard. Daytona's night race moves to Aug. 24.

Atlanta will be followed by Watkins Glen and Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 21.

Phoenix Raceway will again host the season's final race, which comes Nov. 10 next year. The season opens Feb. 18 with the Daytona 500.

Also of note is the addition of a Cup race at Iowa Speedway on June 16, the series' inaugural race at the 0.875-mile oval.

"I think having an Atlanta, a Watkins Glen and then a Bristol night race in that Round of 16 — three very different types of tracks — it’s going to test our drivers quite a bit as they think about the Round of 12 and continuing through the playoffs,” Kennedy said.

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This article originally appeared on Elmira Star-Gazette: What date change for Watkins Glen means for NASCAR and spectators