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CUP: 2011 Schedule Offers Challenges

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As Sprint Cup teams begin planning for the 2011 season – much of the advance work will be done before they break for Christmas, they’re looking at a schedule that has significant changes from the one that Jimmie Johnson rolled through on the way to his fifth straight championship.

The two most important changes involve an addition and a Chase alteration that could pay big dividends.

Joining the Cup schedule for the first time, and signing on as Cup’s first new track in a decade, is Kentucky Speedway, which will bring the Cincinnati market into play for NASCAR. Bruton Smith’s latest acquisition will host Sprint Cup drivers July 9.

Smith promises big things at Kentucky – including massive grandstand additions, and Smith normally delivers. In a sagging economy in which established tracks have run into ticket-selling difficulties, it will be interesting to see what Smith and his team can do with a new venue.

As for teams and drivers, some have experience on the track from other series, but the Cup notebooks there will be empty.

As for the Chase, the playoff part of the Sprint Cup season now will open in one of the nation’s biggest markets as NASCAR moves Chase Race One from New Hampshire Motor Speedway (which keeps two events) to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet (not exactly downtown Second City, but somewhere in the big city’s orbit).

If handled properly, the Chicago race has the potential to give the start of the Chase a new liftoff, with many more possibilities for pre-Chase publicity and sponsor tie-in programs.

In addition, Kansas Speedway picks up a second date for the new year.

A change that some anticipated but one that didn’t occur was a move of the season’s final race – and potentially one of the year’s biggest when the Chase is tight – from Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Homestead has become home to the Chase closer – and to the final races for NASCAR’s other major national series, but there was some thought that, in making adjustments to next year’s Cup schedule, officials might take a serious look at a new mid-November venue for the closing weekend.

Daytona International Speedway, home to the season-opening Daytona 500, had been mentioned as a possibility for the final race. Some saw that idea as providing perfect bookends to the season, and a race at Daytona, the sport’s marquee track, would keep the finale in generally warm and pleasant Florida.

Others, however, fought the idea of deciding the championship on a restrictor-plate track, where much of the day’s activity is outside each individual driver’s control.

NASCAR chairman Brian France had not made a lot of public comments on the scheduling issues, but he talked last week at Homestead about the attractions of the Miami track and indicated that it’s very unlikely that Daytona will host the season finale in future years.

“There’s always the temptation [to move the final race], and other tracks would like to host the finale,” France said. “Daytona wouldn’t work from a spacing standpoint. It’s too close to February [and the 500], and I don’t want to be sitting here with three or four drivers who think Daytona would be the place they needed to finish the season. We might have our hands full trying to manage that one.

“But we always have the issue that, you know, could it work better here or work better there. But this is a great market for our fans to come down, spend a few days. It’s also a competitive place. You know, the weather, the sunshine, the Keys are just to the south and the beaches to the east and on and on and on.

“This is a great championship market, and the track has done a number of things over the years, not the least of which is to get the banking right where the drivers think this is a really fair track to settle things. You don’t hear a thing about, well, that somebody runs better here or there, but they like this layout. So we are pretty comfortable with this market, and we’ll obviously look at it as we go down the road.”

This year’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead solidified the track’s reputation as a host for dramatic racing. There were enough twists and turns on the season’s last Sunday, as Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Johnson wrestled for the title, to stir the blood of most fans.

It’s a part of the schedule that isn’t likely to change – at least in the foreseeable future.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.