(Updated, Aug. 15, 2019, 9:00 pm)
NBC announced Thursday night that NASCAR analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. will skip Saturday’s telecast of the big Cup race at Bristol after he, his wife and young daughter escaped serious injury in a plane crash earlier in the day at a small airport in Elizabethton, Tenn.
Dale, Amy and Isla Earnhardt were in the private jet — N8JR on the tail — that was being flown by two pilots when it ran off the runway at Elizabethton and caught fire. Kelley Earnhardt, Dale’s sister, tweeted out shortly afterward that the family was safe and had been taken to the hospital for evaluation.
âWeâre incredibly grateful that Dale, his wife Amy, daughter Isla, and the two pilots are safe following todayâs accident,” an NBC spokesman said in a statement. “After being discharged from the hospital, we communicated with Dale and his team, and weâre all in agreement that he should take this weekend off to be with his family. We look forward to having him back in the booth next month at Darlington.â
Earnhardt will miss one of the most anticipated Cup races of the season — the last scheduled race in August of a night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the famous half-mile track surrounded by a bowl of 162.000 seats.
The race is always one of the most tightly contested of the NASCAR season, and Earnhardt had made it clear during a race Sunday at Michigan that he was looking forward toÂ calling the action. Next year’s second race from Bristol will be in September, when it will clash with college football season.
NASCAR should already have a good idea about how popular college football is on Saturday nights in the fall. Just three years ago, Bristol Motor Speedway held a non-conference game between Virginia Tech and Tennessee that drew 156,990, an NCAA single-game record by far.
Although the stands at Bristol enclose a half-mile racetrack, making it a little harder to see the field than at a typical football stadium, the âBattle of Bristolâ was an enormous artistic and commercial success. It was a novelty, but it was also a football game between popular teams from neighboring states.
This weekend, NASCAR will hold its last Saturday night Cup race in the summer at Bristol for the foreseeable future. The 2020 Cup night race at Bristol has been scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 19, the third of 10 playoff races — but on a night when college football is king.
The Night Race at Bristol (it has two title sponsors, but neither is necessary, and one is swathed in controversy) has been held in August since 1978, when the race drew 30,000. The race became such a spectacle, with cars ramming into each other on a tight track and drivers often punching each other off the track later, that it became NASCARâs hottest ticket.
There was a long waiting list and ticket lotteries through the 1990s, and as recently as 2011, the Night Race at Bristol drew an estimated 156,000. The downturn in NASCAR attendance eventually swept over Bristol, too. Last yearâs race drew an estimated 95,000. This year’s race already has a good buzz.
Bristol, Tenn./Va., is a stock-car hotbed in a gorgeous, hilly setting, but it is a small metropolis, which means that it has never had a lot of hotel rooms. Area hotels were able to ask, or gouge, for higher prices, but a fan from far away was willing to pay big for the race spectacle.
The speedway at Bristol is said to have a capacity of 162,000, which meant last yearâs Night Race was held before 67,000 empty seats, but 95,000 is still a heck of a lot of people. It has been said that ticket sales for this yearâs race have been running slightly higher.
That would seem to be a good thing, but many people apparently want to go to the Night Race this year because they can center a summer vacation around the trip — which they wonât be able to do next year, because schools will be in session.
NASCAR shipped the Night Race at Bristol to September because of the raceâs prominence and history, and because they could add another crowd-pleasing short track to the playoff schedule. The field will also be trimmed to 12 from 16 after the 2020 Night Race.
The move very well could work, but it seems puzzling. A big crowd in 2020 is not guaranteed, and Bristol is coming off a Sunday-afternoon Cup race on April 7 that drew a scant 38,000. The spring race at Bristol does not have the cache as the night race, but it did still sell out every year from 1983 to 2009. Even Bristol is not the attraction it used to be — outside college football, anyway.
A year from now, the second race of the year at Dover, Del., is to be held on the weekend currently occupied by the Night Race at Bristol, with the second race of the year at Daytona, the old Firecracker 400, moved from the July 4 weekend to Aug. 29.
As with the second Daytona race, the Night Race at Bristol might only stay in place for 2020, after which the NASCAR Cup schedule could undergo more dramatic shifts. It is hard to imagine any Cup schedule without a Night Race at Bristol.
Yet another stock-car tradition appears to be coming to a close, though, and it is unknown how NASCAR will fare when it rams heads with Saturday night college football, both at the track and on television.
The Tennessee Vols play Furman at home in football on Sept. 19, 2020, and the Virginia Tech Hokies play at Middle Tennessee — not titanic tilts. But there will be football covering the whole day on TV.
NASCAR goes up against nothing much this weekend, in sharp contrast. Maybe NASCAR knows something the rest of us don’t.