NASCAR will open the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship at Chicagoland Speedway, shifting the start of its title-deciding 10-race format to the second largest media market the series serves.
"I can't think of a better market than Chicago and the Chicagoland area to kick off NASCAR's version of the playoffs," track president Craig Rust said in an announcement made Monday in Chicago with NASCAR officials, current series points leader Kevin Harvick and defending race winner David Reutimann.
It was the first major change officially confirmed in what's expected to be several significant shifts to the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule.
Kansas Speedway and Kentucky Speedway have both called Tuesday news conferences to announce their 2011 schedules. Kansas is expected to announce the addition of a second race date, while Kentucky will announce its inaugural Cup date.
Based on the tentative 2011 schedule for the second-tier Nationwide Series that NASCAR sent to race teams last week, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Kansas' added race date will likely be June 5 and Kentucky's debut Cup race will be July 9.
NASCAR has a "TBD" marked for June 4 on the Nationwide schedule The AP reviewed, while July 8 has a scheduled Nationwide race at Kentucky.
Chicago, meanwhile, trades its traditional July night race for a prime spot on the NASCAR schedule. Rust acknowledged that a Sunday afternoon race in September will require significant marketing to compete against the NFL's Chicago Bears, as well as potential baseball pennant races.
"You are going to compete with somebody," Rust said. "You can't run from it. You have to get out there and compete, and we think by opening the Chase, this makes us a stronger event."
Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, said Chicago will be the only new market added to the 10-race Chase. It will replace Auto Club Speedway in California, which will lose its fall race to Kansas.
The Auto Club in Fontana, Calif., serves the largest media market of all NASCAR tracks, but has struggled selling tickets and has been frequently mentioned as a candidate to lose one of its race dates.
"What we've done is ultimately give each track the best opportunity to succeed," O'Donnell said. "California we think has a much better date for them, kind of back to their traditional date they used to have that worked well for them."
California's lone race in 2011 is expected to be the fourth event of the season, on March 27. The track drew well when it ran just one race a year during the spring, but struggled to fill seats when it expanded to two races and took over the second spot on the schedule.