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Voice of Vito: Tracking the Changes, 2011 Sprint Cup Schedule Shakeup Looming

Following the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona two weeks ago, talk began again about changes to the Sprint Cup schedule for 2011 and beyond. Hey, why not? After all, there is talk of changing the championship format for only the third time in seven years…

Further credence was given to this speculation when NASCAR President Brian France said last week that International Speedway Corp. (ISC), Darlington’s parent company, and Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) both have petitioned the sport to have their dates realigned, with Darlington not yet receiving its event sanctioning agreements.

That leaves plenty of cities licking their chops at the prospect of NASCAR expansion. Tracks looking to pick up a second race include Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, while Kentucky Speedway has been lobbying the past few years for a Cup date. SMI owner Bruton Smith owns all of the ones involved in both losing and gaining a date except for Kansas, which is owned by the France family-controlled ISC. The list of names are familiar, however, and with the speed and alacrity in which change has swept through NASCAR the last year or so, it would stand to reason that the Sprint Cup calendar will look markedly different come February, 2011.

So which tracks are likely to take one for the teams next year?

Atlanta: Is taking a date from here really necessary? With apologies and condolences to Talladega, Atlanta has long since been recognized as the fastest track in NASCAR since its 1997 reconfiguration. It has been host to some of the closest and most memorable finishes in recent history, chief among them Kevin Harvick’s first victory in 2001 – just three weeks removed from Dale Earnhardt‘s untimely passing.

For years, the fall Atlanta date served as the final race of the season, the site of some very memorable championship finishes. Does the 1992 battle between six drivers and Alan Kulwicki winning it on bonus points ring a bell? Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott were also among those who clinched down-to-the-wire title chases there.

Still, lagging attendance meant that before the season even started, Felix Sabates was suggesting that Atlanta should lose a date altogether. Huh? If someone can find a compelling racing-related reason why one of the most unique tracks in the series should lose out to the REM-inducing Kansas or the typically underwhelming Las Vegas, I’d be happy to listen.

Part of Atlanta’s troubles were corrected last year when its second date was moved from the fall to a summer September date – albeit one over Labor Day weekend. Last year’s penultimate race before the Chase reset brought 111,300 fans in attendance, up from 94,400 earlier that year at the March event. It turns out that fans really aren’t into freezing their behinds off at a track that may produce something between balmy 60-degree weather or a snowstorm, as in 1993.

So if there is one track that should keep two dates, it’s Atlanta. While location might sell some tickets, racing is what generates ratings, and those SportsCenter highlight reels that seem to have been the inspiration behind green-white-checkered finishes and double-file restarts.

New Hampshire: Five years ago, I would have been hollering from the rooftops like a New York City jumper hopped up on PCP to can a date from New Hampshire – if not both of them. The track that Kyle Petty once suggested should be boarded up and turned into a trout pond was always one that left me nonplussed, filled with intense feelings of indifference and boredom.

Over the course of the last few years, however, it has finally matured into a track worthy of two events, producing some of the best racing during a time when genuine close competition has been sorely lacking. It is a 1-mile oval but races like a short track – something that is sorely missing from our sport, a special type of competition which is often romanticized and the loss of long lamented.

That means there typically is a late-race battle between drivers at New Hampshire. Witness Denny Hamlin’s .068-second margin of victory over Gordon in 2007, Mark Martin’s tussle with Juan Pablo Montoya last fall, or the one three weeks ago between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch in the closing laps. Sure, there is the occasional runaway, like Clint Bowyer in ’08, or a race that is called because of rain (Joey Logano’s first win in ’09), but overall, the Magic Mile has become quite a treat in the Northeast.

Plus, along with Dover and that first week of the Chase, when they motor the top 12 through Times Square, this place is about as close to the major markets of Boston and New York City as we’re probably going to get for the foreseeable future.

California: This is a track whose time for contraction has come. Much like Ron Burgundy, it was kind of a… “big deal” back when it first opened in 1997; NASCAR had broken into the coveted Los Angeles market and was prepared to take SoCal by storm. Through the years, many waited for something memorable to happen there – but it never came.

Along the way, Caliborin’-ya has drawn the ire of fans for a number of reasons. As the follow-up event to the Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, the Daytona 500, it routinely fills only a portion of the stands in February due to 500 miles of mind-numbing monotony. It is likely no great coincidence that there is more trash blowing around the track than your regional landfill, as it was built on an old concrete quarry, and looks like something that would typically house a lot of green 55-gallon drums with radioactivity warning stickers.

The heights of heresy were reached in 2004, when California was given the Labor Day date that for over 50 years was Darlington’s hallmark event, the Southern 500. This moment was perhaps the point when, for many fans, NASCAR began to jump the shark, becoming pander bears in a desperate plea to gain attention from viewers who could really care less about the rich history and legacy of the sport.

Or so they thought. Ironically, with that move both attendance and attention began to dwindle. The caliber of actors, singers and stars appearing at Fontana started to steadily decline, looking more like a rerun of Hollywood Squares than a premier sporting event in the entertainment capital of the planet. (Tip of the cap to Jack Nicholson, however. You, sir, are welcome to be the flagman for the whole race this fall if you so desire. Wear a Kobe jersey if you want.)

With this trio in the mix to be sacrificed, those tracks looking to pick up a date are not exactly barn burners themselves, but are mainly benefiting through two reasons: geographical convenience and promotional possibilities.

It has been suggested that Las Vegas may become the launching pad for the Chase or potentially the final event of the year. It also provides fans that are traveling to the track something other to do than just the race itself. Besides, it would not be a major sporting endeavor if there weren’t the specter of gambling surrounding it.

Kentucky works too, I suppose. It is in the Southeast, so it’s kind of getting back to our roots, and a new track isn’t always something to be reviled. Besides, NASCAR probably would like to go there just to rub it in Jeremy Mayfield’s buzzcut.

Casino notwithstanding, Kansas is the one that remains a bit of a mystery to me – I seriously don’t understand the on-track appeal. With the United States shunning missile defense and Iran’s nuclear ambitions going unchecked, I guess being centrally located in North America makes sense. After all, our missile silos and SAC headquarters have always been positioned about the plains in the middle of the country – to give us a few extra minutes to scramble everything.

But if NASCAR isn’t going to use corn fuel as a fuel next year, as had been widely reported, what is the rush to head back out there? I see it turning into the second coming of California, which, as detailed above, is not necessarily a good thing. Besides, a rain delay is a small problem – a tornado delay is a whole other story.

Whatever the outcome, the landscape of the sport looks to be “evolving” once again. The problem is these moves have not exactly worked out in the past, and we’ve seen what happens when you change for the sake of change. Given the cast of tracks involved, I’d say NASCAR would be best served in this instance to leave well enough alone.

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