The new car might be a year behind, but for NASCAR Next-Gen, the promised schedule shake-up has arrived right on schedule.
And it could be the first of many changes over the next decade.
There will be three new venues for the Cup Series to race on next season: Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee, Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Beyond that, the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will undergo a transition from the often tedious but prestigious oval event from one that takes place on the infield road course alongside the NTT IndyCar Series.
And the most notable change is Bristol Motor Speedway’s short-term transformation into a clay half-mile for the first Cup Series race on dirt since 1970. The Bristol Night Race will remain on the traditional concrete surface.
NASCAR Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell says he’s aware of the skepticism pointed towards a dirt race at Bristol.
Attendance had declined rapidly for the spring race at Thunder Valley, and FOX Sports was interested in broadcasting something radically different, and Bristol Motor Speedway became a willing partner.
“If you look at where we’ve been from a capacity standpoint for that event, the track wanted to look at reinventing,” O’Donnell said. “What we could do for that weekend to keep some momentum going for the sport?
“When we talked to our television partners about that, this was the number one thing we wanted to see if we could make happen. We all got together, worked with the race teams, and said, ‘let’s give this a try.
“There is a lot of work still to go in terms of what the rules package will look like, and what the format will look like, but I can tell you it was important for us to give this a try. We’re going to put our best foot forward.”
Meanwhile, gone are two of the most maligned intermediate tracks in Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
The two-mile Michigan International Speedway has struggled to produce compelling action over the past decade and lost one of its two dates as a result. In exchange, traditional venues Darlington Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway have been given second dates.
The other two-mile track, Auto Club Speedway of Southern California, will soon be reconfigured into a high-banked half-mile after the 2021 event in March.
The winds of change have blown through the NASCAR Cup Series schedule like a F-5 tornado.
“You look at some of the things we were criticized for in the past, probably somewhat fairly in terms of going away from our roots, moving races away from a Darlington and Atlanta,” O’Donnell said. “It was important for us to introduce new markets but also embrace what got us to where we are.
“I think you see a really great balance of that with our schedule where we’re able to go to some iconic racetracks, certainly with Road America, COTA, the change at Indy, Nashville, two races at Darlington. Our whole industry loves Darlington. Atlanta, we used to have a championship in Atlanta. Now going back there twice.
“For us, it was a real balance of trying to kind of embrace the old and also look at some new things. A lot of change certainly, for sure, but we believe it’s a good balance for both.”
According to Ben Kennedy — the grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and the current Vice President of Racing development — this is only the first phase of intended changes to the schedule over the next several years.
“For ’22 and beyond, of course we want to continue to introduce more tracks to the circuit, especially short tracks and road courses (that) are always important to our fans,” Kennedy said. “I think you guys saw a little bit of that with the Auto Club announcement just a few weeks ago.
“We’ll certainly keep our eyes on it. We’ll continue to look at making bold but very measured changes.”
While not specifically mentioned, WWT Raceway at Gateway continues to make a strong case for a Cup Series race, especially located outside of St. Louis, Missouri. NASCAR has teased the possibility of contesting a street course race with its Next-Gen car as well.
The NASCAR Pinty’s Series in Canada (pictured above) contests two street courses every year at Toronto and Trois-Rivières.
Perhaps if Bristol goes well, a race could be assigned to a legitimate dirt track with Cup Series capabilities like Knoxville Raceway in Iowa.
NASCAR leased Road America to replace its Chicagoland date and Speedway Motorsports Inc. leased Circuit of the Americas to replace one of the points-paying races previously held by Texas Motor Speedway.
The point is that the NASCAR industry is starting to show some real flexibility when it comes to finding a way to race some place that makes sense — even if that venue is not owned by a current race date holder.
Each race date is currently held by some combination of NASCAR, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dover Motorsports, Mattco Inc. or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These dates are fiscally valuable because they generate revenue from the Cup Series television contract each season, regardless of how well-attended a race is.
For a new venue to appear, that track will either need to be leased out or outright sold, or for its owners to somehow obtain a race date from the above track owners.
All told, this was a lot of change in one fell swoop, but O’Donnell doesn’t believe it was too much. He believes in the markets NASCAR will visit next year, and the racing product they intend to deliver there.
“I think when you look at the opportunities we’ve had to pursue a lot of the new markets (and) iconic racetracks that our OEMs have asked for, our race teams have asked for, our fans have asked for, I think it’s an exciting change,” O’Donnell said.
“It’s certainly unfortunate that sometimes you have to move races out of markets to be able to do those things. We still have loyal race fans in those markets. We tried to keep in proximity with new races and new events that fans could go to. For us, we believe it’s exciting.
“We wanted to be bold. We’ve had a really solid year this year, to continue building on that momentum. We think the work that Ben Kennedy has done by leading this really continues us on that journey not only for this year but we’re going to continue to be bold in ’22 as well.”
Which tracks would you like to see added to future NASCAR Cup Series schedules? Tell us in the comments section below.
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