When NASCAR’s head honcho Brian France announced there would be “impactful” changes to the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule, I stupidly permitted myself a moment to get excited. Following the encouraging introduction of double-file restarts and the multiple green-white-checkered rule, I hoped that, perhaps, the changes made would really make a difference, aiding in the battle against the sport’s waning popularity compared to the previous calendar.
Stupid, stupid me.
Whilst the complete announcement is still to be made, let’s summarize what we’ve heard so far from all the rumors and innuendos: Atlanta and Fontana each lose a date, Chicagoland becomes the first Chase race, Kentucky is awarded their first ever Sprint Cup date, Kansas picks up a second race, Texas becomes a night race and finally, various date flip-flops – most of which seem largely irrelevant and cosmetic rather than “impactful.”
To figure out why, let’s take a detailed look at each of these individual changes in turn, starting with the venerable old Atlanta Motor Speedway — which made its Cup debut all the way back in July 1960. The 300-mile race, just for the record, was won by the legendary Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, the first of what would be two dates on the calendar for one of NASCAR’s oldest ovals. Now, some 102 races later, Atlanta will switch from two dates to one for the first time in the track’s illustrious history. To a certain extent, there is some logic behind this move – crowds have been dwindling, traffic is an unholy nightmare and Atlanta is arguably one of the toughest towns in which to sell a sports ticket. On the other hand, AMS is a track that nearly always provides excellent racing. This, oh powers that supposedly be, is what the sport needs. It doesn’t need more cookie-cutter banality, follow-the-leader type tedium which leads me nicely onto the type of track that’s been granted a second date – Kansas.
Kansas Speedway, home of title sponsor Sprint, first appeared on the Cup schedule in late 2001 and has hosted one race a year since its debut. In the past six seasons, the event has had the added luster (such as that’s not a complete and total oxymoron) of being part of the all-hallowed Chase. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen some good albeit spotty competition at times out there – who can forget Carl Edwards’s brave but stupid banzai move on the final corner two years ago? But for the most part, races at Kansas do not quicken the blood, and clearly, this is a move designed to placate the owners of what will be the shiny new $521 million casino. Let’s be fair; that’s “cough, cough” surely a good reason to give a second date… right?
Moving on from that bad decision, let’s look at another mystifying move, namely giving the first race of the Chase to Chicagoland Speedway. As with Kansas, Chicagoland first appeared on the schedule in 2001, and David Reutimann’s recent win was the 10th race completed at the Joliet, Ill. venue. This move just baffles me. If you’re going to move a track into the Chase, then why not somewhere like Darlington? Adding another blah cookie cutter does absolutely nothing to “spice up” the 10-race playoff; in fact, I’d posit it does the complete and utter opposite. This decision is just bizarre, no question, especially considering the new date could wind up opposite a Bears home game – further diluting the attendance this suffering track so desperately craves. Perhaps there’s a casino planned at Chicagoland, as well?
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as finally light has dawned and time is being called on the second race date at Fontana. I’ve long argued that going from the Daytona 500 to Auto Club Speedway is about as big a comedown from the excitement of the biggest race of the season as you could possibly have. Now, at least, we’ll be spared two excruciatingly dull, follow-the-leader races in front of ever-decreasing crowds, and we’ll just have to suffer through one. Frankly, it will be great to see ACS removed from the final 10 weeks; it was about as worthy of a Chase date as I am a date with Megan Fox.
Meanwhile, on the positive side, Kentucky picks up a long-awaited Sprint Cup race. With the lawsuit now settled, the road is cleared for the mile-and-a-half track to finally play with the Big Boys after a decade of filling up for Nationwide crowds. Bruton Smith has pledged an increase to 120,000 seats from the current 65,000 maximum, and I’m pretty certain this will end up being a solid addition to the Sprint Cup schedule. But it’s neither a huge surprise, nor is it especially “impactful.” Put another way, it’s a 6 or a 7 out of 10 move: good, but not great considering the length and type of racing is the same as several other speedways.
As for the other changes – moving to one night race at Texas and various flip-flopping of other dates, well, color me utterly uninspired. Now, of course, all of this is mostly conjecture, and there may yet be further changes, but considering the tight nature of the NASCAR community, I can’t help but feel we would have heard if there were going to be other major alterations. That said, I’m still more than a little nervous the venerable old Martinsville is in danger of losing a second date over time; it’s not this year, but I still fear the worst at the end of the 2011 season. I have to say the thought of this happening just fills me with dread. It’s bad enough that Darlington – a track that almost always produces compelling racing – only has one race, but if the little old paperclip – one of NASCAR’s original tracks – ever loses one, too, it’s clear (if it wasn’t already) that the inmates are truly running the proverbial asylum.
Now, as I said earlier, some of the above is based on incomplete reports and speculation, but with these sort of decisions, the drip-drip of information tends to be more accurate than not. Yes, there still might be some surprises I’ve not considered (or heard about), so if you have a scoop feel free to share below in the comments section. Overall, though, I guess I’m just massively underwhelmed by the reported changes which are largely “much ado about nothing.” I don’t see many folks becoming NASCAR fans because Kansas has a second date, or because we’re starting the Chase at a 1.5-mile cookie-cutter most so definitively despise. So when push comes to shove, impactful is completely the wrong word to describe what’s happened and candidly, NASCAR has missed a great opportunity to really shake things up.
On a brighter note, it was great to see the No. 42 car win this past weekend at the Glen. Not for the boorish Colombian with his amazing sense of self-entitlement, but rather, for the very popular Brian Pattie who recorded his first Cup victory as a crew chief. Pattie has also won races in both the Trucks and the Nationwide Series and after a trying few weeks – including the fiasco at the Brickyard – you can’t help but feel he’s more than deserving of a long-awaited maiden win.