Last Wednesday (Sept. 30) NASCAR finally released the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule. There had been rumors all summer that the new schedule would bring about some major change to the slate of races next year, and boy it did all of that and then some.
Not unexpectedly, the Daytona 500 will still kick the season off on February 14, a few days after next year’s Clash (which will be run on a Tuesday, Feb. 9 and on the Daytona International Speedway road course, not the oval). The 500 will run on the Sunday after the Super Bowl. A mind-numbing 268 days later, the season will conclude at Phoenix International Raceway.
I’ve long championed even more radical surgery to the season that would see it conclude after Labor Day weekend. At Darlington Raceway, of course. There’s still too many rich men gathered like hogs at the cash trough to allow that to happen… yet. My thinking is once the NFL season kicks off, even at the preseason stage, NASCAR gets kicked to the sidelines, so completely the racing all but ceases to exist for most sports fans. NASCAR’s convoluted playoff system was supposed to address that issue. It has failed to do so and failed to do so to a spectacular degree that has stunned even the sport’s most jaded critics like me.
Before we go any further, let me admit right up front I am no prophet. I don’t know what 2021 has in store for us. In the above paragraph I make mention of the NFL holding preseason games in 2021. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Neither do you. I don’t even know that the NFL will be able to host any regular season games next year, all thanks to a microscopic virus that has tossed an Ozark into the cesspool for most of 2020.
At first we were told that higher temperatures would eradicate COVID-19 by summer. Then we were told a cure would be found by the fall… or most certainly before this year’s presidential election. Already the scientists are saying that it will likely be late spring or early summer next year before the pandemic is under control, either by a vaccine or through herd immunity. Even those predictions come with a warning that as far as this virus outbreak goes, things are likely to get worse before they get better. NASCAR and NBC designed a two-weekend break into the schedule next August — just as it originally did this year — to allow the peacock folks to broadcast the Olympics. Presuming of course the Olympics are held next year. Like the old saying goes, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” And expect 2020.
Will fans be allowed to fill the grandstands again for the 2021 edition of the Daytona 500 or any subsequent early season races? Answer cloudy. Check again later. I do know this, Daytona still has plans to host qualifying and the Duel 150-mile races. Other than that, only the World 600, the championship race at Phoenix and races hosted at new tracks will feature practice and qualifying sessions. The other 28 events will be one-day events like we’ve become accustomed to this year.
After the Daytona 500, the series heads south to Homestead-Miami, which until this year had hosted the last race of the season since 1999. Got it. You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in.
The Cup teams then pack their bags and head out to the left coast for what’s becoming the traditional West Coast swing in deference to colder weather in much of the United States. The series hits Auto Club Speedway (for potentially the final time on the 2-mile configuration before it’s turned into a short track) then Las Vegas Motor Speedway and on to Phoenix.
In a bit of a surprise, Atlanta Motor Speedway gets a second Cup date again next year. The track had hosted two dates annually until 2011 when it was cut back to one date a year, allegedly due to poor ticket sales, but mostly because Bruton Smith wanted to move a date to his new track in Kentucky. (Ticket sales were in fact decreasing rapidly at Atlanta mainly because traffic getting to the track had become so nightmarish.)
The renewed Atlanta spring race is to be held March 21, the day after next year’s Vernal Equinox. Longtime fans may recall in 1993 Atlanta had to be postponed after “the Storm of the Century” dumped three feet of snow on the track. Mother Nature likes naughty little surprises, almost as much as NASCAR. Oh, and for the record, nature’s meteorologists (wooly caterpillars) are predicting one bad winter as 2020 gives way to 2021. You’ve been warned.
I am hearing rumors that a side benefit of Atlanta getting back its second date is that they will tear down the joint after the second race and reimagine it as a proper short track. (Oh, and they’ll also add a casino and water park to the property.) You’ll recall that Atlanta kicked off the “cookie cutter” craze when it was reconfigured from a proper oval track to a D-shaped clone of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But the most audacious change to the 2020 schedule involves the March 28 race at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR is planning on converting Bristol to a dirt track. Well, actually they are planning to cover the existing concrete track with dirt so it can be changed back for the night race in the summer. Where the hell do you go to even buy that much dirt? Not the local Home Depot I’m guessing.
Bristol has already experimented with covering the track in dirt for World of Outlaws and late model races previously in the early 2000s. The quality of the racing wasn’t sufficient that fans demanded more so the experiment was abandoned. Yes, some folks love dirt-track racing. I love birthday cake, but not for breakfast. You can see those dirt track fans in their “Dirt is for racing. Asphalt is for parking” t-shirts at your local short (dirt) track. Usually poorly laundered t-shirts because they get so dirty every weekend. Another dirt-track tip I can offer after many races at Grandview is keep your thumb over the hole in your beer can or you’ll end up with an inch of mud at the bottom of it.
I’m concerned the racing won’t be much good with the bigger, heavier Cup cars but I guess if you must sin, sin bravely. Another concern is what sort of tires are they going to run? Most dirt-track cars I see run brands other than Goodyear. My guess is they’ll run the Goodyears that the Truck Series drivers run at Eldora despite the obvious differences and dynamics of the trucks and Cup mounts. Why would Goodyear spend a ton of money developing new tires when it’s already been announced the Cup cars are changing to 18-inch rims in 2022?
At this point NASCAR hasn’t announced the format for the race. Most dirt-track events have qualifying races, a last-chance qualifier and the feature. An unholy mish-mash between stage racing and the qualifiers likely is in the offing.
Like I said, sin bravely.
But the fact this experiment is a points-paying race, not an exhibition, is also of great concern to me. Who knows? Maybe it will be a huge success (though given NASCAR’s track record I’m not betting the farm on it.) If so, what’s next? A high-banked figure-8 dirt track with jumps?
Lord willing and if the creek don’t rise, crews will probably be hosing down their equipment at quarter carwashes on their way to Martinsville Speedway after the Grand Bristol Terra Firma experiment and Science Fair Project. The ironic part is that NASCAR and the track owners got Martinsville right way back in 1949 and it needs no realignment with all the changes announced this week. To be fair, they did add lights to the joint a few years back.
While Richmond Raceway has been reconfigured several times over its history, I think the current layout has hit the Goldilocks spot for NASCAR short-track racing. If Bristol is too hot and Martinsville is too cold, Richmond is just right. And for the record, they decided to pave RIR back in 1968. Perhaps Bristol track management didn’t get that memo?
After a quick stop at Talladega Superspeedway in 2021 the Cup circus heads on to Kansas. Despite all the schedule jiggering next year, Kansas Speedway will still host two Cup dates (May 2 and Oct. 24). I strongly suspected that Kansas would lose one if not both dates to the wrecking ball. The track opened in 2001 but remains unloved or even disdained by most fans.
Darlington has hosted only one race for a number of years now, but next year gets back its spring race (though I highly doubt it will be called the Rebel 400 moving forward). And of course Darlington will still host the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend, just the way God and Bill France Sr. intended. If you want to grasp why NASCAR’s highly touted Realignment 2004 (the last major schedule shakeup) went down in flames consider NASCAR fans continued showing up in huge numbers to camp for the Labor Day weekend in Darlington’s parking lot even after that race date was stripped from the historic track.
The circuit then moves on to Dover International Speedway which will host just one Cup date next year. Dover track management decided to move the second Cup date to Nashville Superspeedway. I’m repeating myself here, but that date will not be hosted at the historical and beloved Nashville short track downtown, but rather on a superspeedway outside the city limits. I just don’t want any fans being disappointed when they arrive in “Nashville” and find out they bought tickets to a pig in a poke event.
There’s a new venue added to the schedule next season at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. COTA is a magnificent racing facility originally intended to host Formula 1 races. How well it will accommodate the bigger, heavier, slower Cup cars remains to be seen.
If some tracks are being added to the schedule, others must naturally fall away. There will be no Cup races at Kentucky Speedway or Chicagoland Speedway next year. The Governor of the Great State of Kentucky is well and truly pissed by the fact that the state treasury spent vast amounts of money improving roads leading to the track and promoting racing tourism as yet another reason to come visit Kentucky. On a brighter note, Sir, it wasn’t your money. It was the taxpayers’. Pocono Raceway tried for years to get the state of Pennsylvania to improve the road leading to the track with little success. That’s called fiduciary responsibility in a state that still charges a tax on liquor to aid the victims of the Johnstown floods… which occurred on May 31, 1889. They’re still looking for their lost shaker of salt I presume. The Kentucky track’s first Cup date was marred by traffic so epic that a lot of fans gave up, turned around and went home. For those who persevered and made it to the track, they were greeted by muddy quagmires posing as parking lots that would suck the shoes or boots right off your feet. The time to take the cookies is when the cookies are passed. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that first race at Kentucky left a whole lot of fans steamed.
Chicagoland had a major PR problem in that it’s not in fact in Chicago. There is a whole lot of land between Chicago and Chicagoland. It’s best to budget several hours for the trip on race weekends. Chicagoland as it turns out is in Joliet, better known the town where the prison that once hosted the fictional Jake and Elwood Blue as residents. Now if the promoters had been able to convince all the teams to run black-and-white police car paint schemes for the race the track might have had a chance. “It’s got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas.” Hit it.
Michigan International Speedway will also lose one of its two race dates next year, a bit of an embarrassment for a track in the spiritual home of the American auto industry.
After COTA, the circuit heads off to one of the anchor-pins of the annual Cup schedule, the World (soda companies be damned) 600 on Memorial Day weekend. Want to shorten it to 600 kilometers? You want an edited 40-page edition Readers’ Digest version of Gone With the Wind too, Yankee?
Even after a 600-mile race, the Cup teams face a long trek way out west to Sonoma, presuming the wildfires haven’t destroyed the track. Is anyone else forming a rather poor opinion of 2020 yet?
Check back later this week for the second part of the 2021 schedule breakdown.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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