So, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is out. We asked for changes, and we got them. Some good, some not so good.
NASCAR is telling us that this is the first step; let’s hope that it is not the last.
We have more road courses, which is one of the things that was asked for. We are going back to dirt, which is another thing that was requested and is a great opportunity to bring some lost fans back into the sport.
The one thing that we didn’t get is more short tracks on the schedule. Hopefully the reconfiguration of Auto Club Speedway will not be the only short track addition by the end of 2022.
Looking at the schedule, let’s first talk about the good changes. Darlington Raceway has two race dates — praise the good lord above! It never should have lost one in the first place, let alone have been in danger of losing both. Thankfully, as a thank you to them helping bring the sport back (or just someone in Daytona coming to their senses) we are now back to two races at the Lady in Black.
We also finally have Road America back on the Cup schedule. It only took 65 years, but it will be worth the wait. The only challenge for that race will be figuring out a way to make the caution periods less lengthy due to the four-mile-lap length.
We are also going to run at the Circuit of the Americas, which should be a fantastic show. The state-of-the-art facility was hit in the gut when Formula 1 bailed thanks to COVID-19 in 2020, and it is in need of a shot in the arm. Bringing the premier stock car racing series in the country to the track should be a great addition and help keep the track open for years to come.
Finally, we are headed to Nashville Superspeedway. While it isn’t Fairgrounds Speedway, it is in the area. Provided the fans show up to support this race, and the folks at SMI and the Fairgrounds/city of Nashville can get their act together, we can hopefully end up at the real Nashville race track sooner rather than later.
Now let’s talk about things that could have gone a little better.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is a historic racetrack that has put on some of the best races in the history of the sport. For Intermediate tracks, it is among the top two or three on the schedule. Based on that criteria, it deserves two dates. Unfortunately, if we’re trying to move the sport to a more diverse schedule, we should be getting away from two dates at a racetrack. NASCAR took one away from Texas Motor Speedway to have the COTA race; moving Kentucky Speedway’s date to Atlanta just doesn’t seem like a good decision.
The folks in Kentucky did things the right way; they supported Xfinity Series races at the track for years and were finally rewarded with a Cup date a decade ago. They have been loyal to a fault, even through some growing pains. The state poured some serious money into infrastructure improvements, only to be slapped in the face with losing their race date. Moving out of a region to add a second race in another region is just a poor choice.
Speaking of moving out of a region, goodbye to one of the top three media markets in the country, as Chicagoland Speedway is losing its race date. As awesome as it is that the series is finally going back to Road America, there are other tracks that could have sacrificed a date to make that happen while Chicago could have kept its race. The Midwest is an enormous area for racing, and NASCAR has absolutely thumbed their nose at the region by taking away dates from Michigan International Speedway, Kentucky and Chicago, adding only Road America. The people in the breadbasket of America deserve better, and especially the people of the City of Broad Shoulders. In a few short years the city has gone from two national series-level tracks to none. We can do better.
Michigan loses a race date in order for Darlington to host a second event. While the racing at Michigan is exemplary, with lanes from the bottom to the top of the track, it simply hasn’t aged well since its repaving. Having a presence in the heart of the auto industry is important for the sport, but in anticipation of moving toward single-race-date tracks, this move actually makes sense. The other move that would have made great sense would have been to take a date away from Kansas Speedway. The track is one of the newer intermediates, with a short history. Taking a date from there for Road America instead of Chicagoland would have been a much more intelligent maneuver. Unfortunately for Chicagoland and Midwestern race fans, there is no casino on the property in Joliet, Ill., so that also contributed to the decision, however disappointing it might be.
That brings us to the head-shaking decisions.
The All-Star Race was Humpy Wheeler and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s idea in 1985. They moved it to Atlanta in 1986 and it was a poor event. They had it back at Charlotte until the pandemic, moving it to Bristol this year. Again, it was far from a home run.
The idea was Charlotte’s; the best opportunity for race teams and their families to enjoy the fruits of their labor is a race in their backyard. Instead NASCAR is moving the race to Texas as a bone to it for losing a race to COTA.
The problem with the decision is no one wants to see the race at Texas. The racing there has been average at best with this package, and as we saw at Bristol, without lapped traffic, the racing is terrible.
Bottom line, this is a poor decision. Keep the race in Charlotte.
Speaking of poor decisions, since 1994 there have been very few arguments about what the constitutes the crown jewel races of the Cup Series: the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which held the latter, is known for its iconic 2.5-mile oval.
In 2000, F1 returned to Indianapolis with a race on the newly paved infield road course. MotoGP also raced there, and recently we have seen Xfinity join the NTT Indycar Series and Indy Lights in utilizing the surface.
No matter who races on it, 20 years of history cannot rival 112 years of history on the oval. NASCAR has decided to move the Cup race to the road course as a companion race with IndyCar next year. It has taken a major event from its schedule and history and turned it into another gimmick event.
The ROVAL at Charlotte is unique for NASCAR. The road course at Daytona is going to be used for the Busch Clash this coming season but is not part of the point schedule. Now NASCAR is adding the Indy road course at the expense of the history associated with the Brickyard. Simply a horrible decision.
Another decision that has positive aspects but is a less than ideal choice is the spring race at Bristol, which will take place on a dirt racing surface. In 2000, Bristol put dirt on the surface and ran the World of Outlaw Sprint Cars and Late Models. The track is going to try it again next season with the Cup Series.
Fans have asked for dirt to be back on the Cup schedule since the success of the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway. But while the request has been to add dirt, it was never asked with the idea of losing a short track race to make it happen.
The series should absolutely go to dirt, but there are two things that need to be included in that move. First, there needs to be at least two races, and preferably four. It is unfair for the teams to have to do the research and development and effort to build a racecar for one race for the whole season. Putting these cars on dirt should mean the teams receive the benefit of multiple races during the year. Secondly, the race should be taking place on an actual dirt track, not a one-off track with dirt thrown down for a few weeks. There are a ton of dirt tracks in the country that are capable of pulling off the event; there is no need to swap a short track race for a dirt race on the same track.
The move to more road races is a positive step, but the races should be on actual road courses, not ovals with twisty asphalt in the infield. Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Virginia International Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park are just a few places that would have been a good choice instead of Indianapolis. Hopefully this is a one-year deal and next year it’ll move the Indy race back to the historic oval
The final observation on the schedule is that there are no new short tracks. Putting dirt on Bristol does not a new short track make. The time has come for NASCAR to get rid of the arbitrary requirement that racetracks have to be half a mile in length or longer to host a Cup race. There are hundreds of short tracks across the country that would be a great location for a Cup race.
The old argument that there is not enough room for hospitality doesn’t hold water anymore. There is very little hospitality associated with these races that require a ton of space. Most communities would be happy to accommodate corporate activities slightly off property if the need be.
The problem that appears to be in place is that SMI and NASCAR do not own the tracks. We need to get past that stigma and do what is best for the sport, not what is best for those two entities. The sport should look for the best race locations that would put on the best racing and not worry about placating a stakeholder in the sport. Getting back to tracks like Hickory Speedway, South Boston Speedway and Greenville-Pickens Speedway is greatly needed at this point in the sport’s history.
The 2021 schedule has some positive changes, and it is encouraging that the sanctioning body has made some changes. But fans need to both support them and encourage NASCAR to do more. If we get behind them and support the moves, we will hopefully get to move closer to the roots of the sport from which we have strayed.
One step at a time.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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