NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France likes to invoke sports metaphors when talking about stock-car racing, as he did last month at Indianapolis, when he told reporters, “Every commissioner would say they want great playoff events, Game 7s, NCAA tournament final or Super Bowl.
“They want an action-packed close game with great storylines. We're no different.”
With that in mind, there’s no question that NASCAR’s radically retooled 2011 schedule is the first step in helping create some real playoff buzz in the wake of Jimmie Johnson's four-year-long dominance of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But it also represents much more, including the introduction of Kentucky Speedway in the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule for the first time, a second date for Kansas Speedway and the admission that Atlanta and Southern California couldn’t support two Cup dates. And it hints that more change is to come.
More importantly, perhaps, is the timing: There’s no question that attendance and television ratings have been down this season, but there is some optimism that the bottom may have been hit, and that the timing is right for change.
“NASCAR is just so strong,” said team owner and former track operator Roger Penske. “People talk about that it’s off a little bit, but I can tell you we’ll have more (fans) than the Super Bowl every weekend at the tracks that we run at. I think business is pretty good.”
Here’s what’s known for sure about the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, which will be released in full on Aug. 18.
• The 2011 season will open Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500, as always. But the following week, the Sprint Cup Series will race at Phoenix International Raceway. The SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500 will be shortened by 100 kilometers and take place on a Sunday afternoon, instead of a Saturday night.
• Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., loses its date in the Chase and will host only one Cup race, March 27.
• Kansas Speedway adds a Cup race June 5, and will also host the fourth race in the Chase Oct. 9. Kansas picks up the extra date at the expense of Auto Club Speedway, both tracks being owned by International Speedway Corp. Although Kansas is installing lights, both of its races will be daytime events.
“We believe the region is more than capable of successfully sustaining two Cup events,” said Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of ISC and sister of Brian France. “The second Cup date at Kansas Speedway also will be great for the sport. The Kansas City region is an important one for the NASCAR race teams and our partners.”
• Kentucky Speedway will host its first Cup race on July 9, using a date that will come from Atlanta Motor Speedway, its sister Speedway Motorsports track. The Kentucky race will be under the lights on Saturday night.
• Atlanta Motor Speedway loses its spring date and will host its only race Sept. 4.
• Chicagoland Speedway moves its race from mid-July to Sept. 18, which will be the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Chicagoland race will also be Sunday afternoon, after being a Saturday night event in recent years.
• New Hampshire Motor Speedway will slide into the second Chase spot, followed by Dover International Speedway in the third Chase slot.
• Add it all up, and about one-fourth of the race dates on the Sprint Cup schedule will move next season.
One of the boldest moves is launching the Chase at Chicagoland. With the 2011 National Football League schedule not yet released, there’s a chance the race could go head to head with a Chicago Bears home game in a football-crazy city. Nevertheless, it puts the start of the Chase in the second biggest media market in the nation, something critically important to NASCAR.
Sources familiar with the 2011 NASCAR schedule said that Michigan International Speedway was offered a Chase date and turned it down because of the popularity of football there.
One other interesting footnote: Four-time defending Cup champion Johnson has never won at Chicagoland but has won four of the last six at Auto Club Speedway, which is losing a Chase race.
As for the Kentucky race, there were rumors that SMI would pull one of its dates from New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but that given that SMI paid $340 million to purchase the New England track, it was not going to lose a race.
“We’re going to create the grandest sports event in the history of the state in 2011, and any fan that comes here will know what it means to be lucky in Kentucky,” said SMI Chairman Bruton Smith.
Purely from a logistical standpoint, putting the radically retooled schedule together was a major challenge for NASCAR.
“At the end of the day, it was our job to really weigh (schedule realignment requests) and try and put a schedule together that’s the best for our race fans, No. 1, works for our competitors and race teams and, obviously, gives our tracks the best opportunity to fill the house,” said NASCAR Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell.
And that appears to be just what the new schedule should do.
Still, the other shoe is waiting to drop.
NASCAR’s France has said point-blank that the sanctioning body is looking at a major overhaul of the Chase format for next season. France will be in Dallas next Tuesday night when Texas Motor Speedway unveils its 2011 schedule, and it is possible at that time he’ll address Chase changes.
The most prevalent rumor continues to be that the Chase field will expand to 15 drivers, with drivers eliminated as the Chase goes on, with a winner-take-all format among the top three to five drivers in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For confirmation on whether or not that happens, it’s up to NASCAR at the moment. Regardless of what happens, though, 2011 will very likely be much different than any other year since the Chase began in 2004.
“I think it has everything to do with NASCAR trying to create the best product that they can, trying to be in front of the right audiences, the right time of the year for certain race tracks so the stands are full, action-packed tracks for the Chase so our television numbers are up,” said Johnson. “ ... We’re ready wherever those 10 races are — we’re ready to race.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.