NASCAR released the 2009 schedules for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and truck series this week, and there were a few changes for each circuit as the sport moves forward. On the truck calendar, NASCAR hit a home run, and the Nationwide circuit was a stand-up double. The Sprint Cup schedule, however, was more of a weak ground ball to second base for the first out of the inning.
The Truck Series (it will no longer be sponsored by Craftsman in 2009 and no replacement title sponsor has been named) made only one major change, and it was a good one. The series will run at Chicagoland Speedway under the lights on August 26, replacing one of two Atlanta dates where attendance was spotty. That’s a great move; it adds a race to a successful track and brings the best racing in NASCAR’s upper levels to the Windy City for the first time. Although Milwaukee is close, the two dates are two months apart, and neither venue should suffer from the other’s proximity with the spread between races.
The only downside to the truck schedule is the extended break in March and April that includes only three races in both months and a four-week vacation between Martinsville and Kansas. While a shorter schedule is probably a good thing for the series – it’s less expensive for teams whose budgets are far below those of their Cup and Nationwide counterparts – the sparse calendar in the early going also makes it hard for anyone to gain momentum, including the fans.
The Nationwide Series schedule made a good decision to remove the Mexico City venue from its date book. The race, which was meant to jump start the Corona Series and was not intended to be a permanent feature, did its job, but ticket sales began to drop off, and coupled with the expense for the teams to travel so far, this was a good time to make a clean break. The series replaces the event with a summer swing to Iowa Speedway, adding a short track to the schedule. The .875-mile tri-oval has lobbied for a race date for a few years now, and it seems that NASCAR finally listened. Adding another short track wasn’t a bad decision, as the series once thrived on them, but there were a couple of other facilities that probably deserved a place on the schedule, possibly before Iowa.
Personally, I’d like to have seen NASCAR replace Mexico City’s road course with another road course – perhaps Road America. It’s hard on the teams to build special cars for only two races, which they will now be doing. Also, road racing is a skill that developmental drivers will need in the Sprint Cup Series, so it makes sense to give them as much seat time as they can get. Besides, road-course races are just fun. The other venue that should have gotten more consideration for the date is the newly reopened Rockingham Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. The Rock was once a staple on the NASCAR circuit and this spring’s ARCA race proved the track’s still got it. The racing is great, and NASCAR needs to care about its roots. Finally, the series’ off-weeks are a little strangely distributed – something which would not be an issue if the series did not run as a companion to so many Sprint Cup races. Perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to address that as well. Still, the series made a decent choice with Iowa, and unlike the Cup Series, the off-weeks aren’t too bad.
Then, there is the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. As NASCAR’s premier series, the Cup calendar has the opportunity to shine by showcasing its cars on tracks that provide the best racing and the best challenge to the best drivers in stock car racing. And the sanctioning body doesn’t seem to get it. The biggest change this year was a three-way swap that moved Atlanta’s fall date to Labor Day weekend, Auto Club Speedway’s second race to the weekend previously occupied by Talladega Superspeedway, and Talladega to Atlanta’s old fall date, just four races from the end of the season.
The swap might attract a few more people to the perpetually half-empty ACS by virtue of the Chase gimmick, but it still rewards boring racing when the championship contenders should be going door-to-door for every point they can get. Having Talladega in the Chase at all is questionable, and it’s position so close to the end doesn’t help matters. Even before, the potential for someone to be taken out of championship contention by someone else’s careless hand was terrible. Now, if a contender is caught in a wreck of someone else’s making, he could see his championship run crumple with the sheetmetal. Three races isn’t much to make up the spread between first and last at a crapshoot track. Finally, moving the Atlanta date to the first weekend in September is both confusing and a slap in the face to old-school race fans. The weather in Atlanta can be brutally hot and humid at that time of year, which is not particularly conducive to racing 500 miles or sitting in the stands after consuming a couple six-packs. However, when you consider that this same Southern summer weather was given a few years back as the reason for taking the date from Darlington, where it had been for more than 50 years as the oldest standing race in NASCAR history, it stings. It shows once and for all that the reason for the end of NASCAR’s oldest tradition was simply greed, and that it truly was the end of the sanctioning body wanting to put on a good show above everything else.
The series does get a passing grade for effort, for inserting an off-week between Bristol and Atlanta, just two weeks before the Chase begins. The final empty date was previously in July, giving teams nearly a four-month stretch of racing every week, sapping teams’ energy when they needed it the most. Giving them the chance to rebound before the Chase should make the final 10 races a better show for fans.
NASCAR gets mixed grades on the 2009 schedules. All in all, it’s probably a “C” average-neither terrific nor terrible. Kudos for adding venues in two series. Shame on the sanctioning body for moving dates and still not seeing their way clear to do the right thing for the sake of racing and not the bottom line. All in all, it’s still the same old NASCAR, no matter how you schedule it.