In under eight weeks, NASCAR Sprint Cup engines will be fired in anger once more as the stock car portion of Daytona SpeedWeeks opens with the Feb. 12 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.
There will be much building, testing, debating and pondering between now and then, of course. Sprint Cup shops are mostly silent this week for the Christmas break, but preseason preparations will continue in earnest as the calendar turns to a new year – and a new season.
As Sprint Cup teams get ready for 2011, they’re looking at a schedule that offers some interesting changes from 2010.
The schedule starts, as is tradition, with the Daytona 500 Feb. 20 (after the Feb. 12 Shootout non-point race), but then things detour. Instead of motoring cross-country for Race Two in California, teams will stop a little short in Phoenix. Then it’s on to Las Vegas for Race Three before a one-week break to reorganize and assess the start of the season.
Auto Club Speedway in California moves to the Race Five slot, after the spring visit to Bristol, then it’s on to Martinsville, Texas and Talladega before a weekend off for Easter.
The summer stretch includes the season’s biggest changes. Kansas Speedway’s new second date – a bonus race to join the track’s under-construction casino – is dropped into the schedule June 5, and, in the following month Kentucky Speedway is scheduled to host its first Sprint Cup event, on July 9. Kentucky thus becomes the first new track on the Sprint Cup schedule in a decade.
The third and final off week in the schedule is July 24. That break will be followed by the most grueling part of the schedule, a 17-week run to the end of the season.
That stretch includes the Chase, of course, and the “playoff” part of the season will have a new opening as Chase Race One will be held at Chicagoland Speedway instead of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Moving the Chase opener to one of the nation’s biggest media markets will give NASCAR the opportunity to impact a wider audience for the start of the spotlighted part of its season.
New Hampshire moves to the second spot in the Chase.
The closing six weeks of the Chase hold the same tracks – Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead – as last year, which might not be a good sign for those chasing five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
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.