Yesterday (March 5), I hit on the major changes that were made to the schedule for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule and detailed the first part of the season. Today, we complete that journey and break down the rest of the changes being made.
All told, there are six road course events on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule next year. In addition to the Circuit of the Americas and Sonoma Raceway, the tour returns to Watkins Glen International after a one-year hiatus (Aug. 8) and to Road America for the first time since 1956 (July 4).
Again, the season kicks off with The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, but this time on the road course. The real surprise is that the Brickyard 400 is no more; well, not on the oval track commonly referred to as the Brickyard anyway. On Aug. 15, the Cup cars will take to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield road course, which utilizes portions of the traditional oval as well.
The Indy road course was a slapdash sort of a racetrack former facility owner Tony George hodge-podged together to allow Indianapolis to host a Formula One race starting in 2000. It was never a very good racing circuit, and the bottom fell out of the U.S. Grand Prix with the tire debacle of 2005 that saw all but three teams head for the pits and be out of the race on the first lap due to tire issues. For the most part, they could have raced school buses on the combination oval-road course at Indy and the action would probably be no less tepid.
The history of open wheel racing at Indy is a rich one, but NASCAR’s flirtation with the track has been less than successful. Jeff Gordon won the first Brickyard 400. Dale Earnhardt the Original won the second one and declared himself the first “man” to win the event. The brothers Bodine got into some sort of scuffle and treated the NASCAR press to a very untidy airing of family laundry. Then came the tire debacle that was the 2008 Brickyard 400. At that point, NASCAR should probably have consigned the Brickyard 400 to the scrapyard of history and moved on down the highway. Yes, Indy, the oval track at least, is a historic place with deep roots in motor-racing history. But for NASCAR, it’s always struck me as praying in somebody else’s church.
That’s why I was confused this week to hear people talking about the Brickyard 400 as one of the “Big 4” races annually on the NASCAR calendar, with the others being the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 (formerly the World 600) and the Southern 500. In my mind, at least, the Brickyard 400 never approached that level of prestige or importance. While it’s true the first Brickyard 400 in 1994 had a bigger purse than that same year’s Daytona 500, I always saw the Brickyard 400 as the triumph of sizzle over steak. Perhaps that’s a matter of geography. I call the right coast home, not flyover country. I have a huge reverence for the Indy 500 and the racing in that event, but when it comes to the Brickyard 400, not so much.
The week after Sonoma, NASCAR tosses the fans another curveball. This year’s All-Star Race will be at Texas Motor Speedway on June 13. I’m not privy to all the inside machinations, but apparently someone decided that NASCAR couldn’t race at COTA in Austin, Texas, if TMS still hosted two points-paying Cup races in the same season (the logic there is lost on me).
Texas will retain its playoff date in mid-October but lose its second points race annually to host the All-Star Race. I am sure TMS President and CEO Eddie Gossage will blow a lot of shit up and come up with some bizarre rules and formats for the race (though I doubt he’ll be able to top Humpy Wheeler’s giant pachinko machine). The race itself will likely be on the tepid side, but the race-team members (most of whom live in or around Charlotte) will likely really miss their annual two-week homestand just before summer.
After the aforementioned new stop at Nashville Superspeedway (not the short track), the Cup circus heads north to the Poconos for another stab at a doubleheader weekend with Cup races scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday. We never really got a feel for whether the concept was going to work out this year because no grandstand tickets were sold due to the COVID-19 virus. I think ticket sales will be better than that in 2021 but not by much … because of that virus. Hey, Pocono has an infield road course, too. You don’t think? Nah. I’d only want to see that if they could run the (triangular) oval race and the road course event concurrently. And maybe coat the whole joint with dirt and clay, too.
After Pocono, they’ll make that aforementioned return to Road America. NASCAR swears that the fans are demanding more road courses. I recall a time back in the early 1990s when the fans were demanding more night races after lighting was added at Charlotte Motor Speedway for The Winston and the World 600. The novelty soon wore off (except at Bristol Motor Speedway), as more and more night races were added to the schedule. While I appreciate an occasional Sunday afternoon off during the summer to head to the shore, go riding with my buddies or attend a family barbecue (or combine the three), too many is too many once you lick all the red off your candy.
How did the changeover to half road courses and half ovals in the open wheel series formerly known as CART work out for them? Or anyone, actually? Remember how the alternative to the Indy 500 at Michigan worked out for them. By way of reminder, “the best drivers on Earth” couldn’t even complete the pace laps without having a big wreck. I think what NASCAR’s fans were actually saying was they wanted a break from weeks’ long strings of processional parades hosted on the cookie-cutter tracks annually dominating the schedule. As such, road courses were a more enjoyable occasional diversion. To an extent, though, it’s like asking race fans if they’d rather be punched in the mouth or kicked in the nuts (if so equipped). More short tracks was and remains the correct answer.
The Cup series then returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 11 for a second Cup date that’s being added this year. From there it is north to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for that track’s only Cup date in 2021.
NBC then takes two weeks off for the summer Olympics, presuming of course the pandemic has abated enough for the 2021 Olympics to be held. From my keyboard to God’s laptop. Please, please, please let at least some form of normalcy have returned by next summer.
Cup racing resumes at Watkins Glen on Aug. 8 followed by that Indy road course experiment a week later. Michigan International Speedway’s sole remaining Cup event will be run Aug. 22. With the track hosting just one date this year, fans heading toward the second Michigan race won’t encounter fans still trying to get home from the first event headed in the opposite direction.
For years upon years, the second Cup race at Daytona, traditionally the Firecracker 400, was hosted at Daytona on the Fourth of July Weekend. This year, it will be held Aug. 28, right near the height of Atlantic Tropical Storm season. We’re most of the way there. The World 600 remains on Memorial Day Weekend. The Southern 500 is back to a Labor Day Weekend at Darlington Speedway where it belongs. But the Firecracker has been cut adrift to move around on whim.
Here’s the deal guys: The race belongs not just on the Fourth of July weekend but on the Fourth of July itself. And it should start between 10-11 a.m. like it did for years to escape the brutal heat of the day, and the afternoon and evening thunderstorms that are just a fact of life in Coastal Florida come summertime.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got the memo about how the second Daytona Cup date now sets the slate for the playoffs that start the following weekend. That’s just silly. The tumultuous chaos of a superspeedway race and the randomized finishing orders they produce is no way to cull the herd of championship contenders. While the topic is open since we’re changing a whole lot of things in a single year, isn’t it time to consign superspeedway racing to the scrapheap of bad ideas? The restrictor plates, then tapered spacers, were originally added as a temporary measure to slow the cars at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway way back in 1988. It’s become a bit like that “temporary” Johnstown Flood relief tax here in Pennsylvania.
As for the tracks on next year’s championship slate, the lineup looks very similar to this year’s schedule. Amidst the tidal wave of changes, perhaps there’s some comfort in that, though. Anyone who hopes to see calendar year 2020 become the new norm must have their sanity called into serious question.
The first three races of the 2021 playoffs are to be run the first three weekends in September and include what I’d argue are the best three consecutive weekends of racing on 2021 schedule. Everything kicks off with the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day Weekend. From there, the Cup Series moves on to Richmond Raceway, followed by Bristol. The second round of the playoffs is exactly the same as this year’s second round. After kicking off at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR gambles on the drivers’ safety by running at Talladega. The second round concludes with another wild-card-type event on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
The third round of the playoffs is similar to this year’s slate of races: Texas, Kansas Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. The only change from this year is Kansas and Texas swap dates, allegedly due to something called The Electric Daisy Carnival. I’m not even sure what the hell that is. I prefer my flowers powered by photosynthesis, thank you, and our local summer carnival is headlined by a demo derby and mud bog behind the firehouse.
If the clanking, smoking, rusted monster the Cup schedule has become indeed crosses the finish line under its own power, the 2021 Cup champion will be crowned at Phoenix Raceway next Nov. 7. That’s a lot of moving parts and pieces that have to be made to mesh and engage for that to happen, most notably a tiny little virus that is causing a great big crises and ruckus, but I remain at least cautiously optimistic it will get done by and by.
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.