It is hard to believe that this weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway is the first ever for the XFINITY Series. The triangular track nestled in the Pennsylvania hills is not a late arrival to the NASCAR party. The Sprint Cup Series has hosted at least one event at Pocono every year since 1974. The Truck Series began making an annual stop in Pocono in 2010. Yet in all that time, there has not been one XFINITY race at the “Tricky Triangle.”
Why does that seem so odd? The reality is that Pocono’s Cup series-heavy history is one of the last vestiges of an era when the XFINITY Series did not share so many weekends, or even tracks, with NASCAR’s top division. Since the popularity boom of the mid and late 1990s, most of the major changes to the NXS schedule involve a movement toward tracks where the Cup Series also races, often on the same weekend. Pocono’s history stands out because it was one of the last exceptions to the trend.
In 2016, the XFINITY schedule consists of 33 races at 24 different tracks. Of those 24 tracks, there are only three where the Cup Series does not race: Iowa, Mid-Ohio, and Road America. In turn, the Cup Series has only two tracks, Martinsville and Sonoma, which do not host the XFINITY Series. Moreover, 2016 features 28 race weekends at a single track which host both Sprint Cup and XFINITY races.
With the addition of Pocono to the NXS slate, NASCAR’s trend of blending the schedules of its national series proves to be the driving force behind other XFINITY Series schedule changes. Those changes have given NASCAR’s second-tier series a much different look than it once had.
Ten years ago, the then-Busch Series raced a total of eight events at seven tracks the Cup Series did not visit. Those tracks included Nashville Superspeedway, Milwaukee, Kentucky, Gateway, Lucas Oil Raceway, Memphis, and the road course in Mexico City. Except for Kentucky, all of those tracks have been dropped from the schedule. However,all the other tracks on the schedule in 2006 remain on the XFINITY calendar today (except for Martinsville, which hosted its first NXS race since 1994 and has not held one since).
Going back another ten years, the schedule looks even more different. The 1996 schedule was much more reflective of the XFINITY Series’ short track-oriented past. In addition to LOR and Milwaukee, non-Cup Series tracks included Hickory, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Nazareth, South Boston, Myrtle Beach, and Homestead. Today, only Homestead remains on the XFINITY circuit.
A total of 11 tracks from the 1996 and 2006 NXS seasons that did not host Cup races in those respective years are no longer a part of NASCAR’s second-tier division. That is not an all-inclusive list, either. Tracks like Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal and Pikes Peak
International Raceway in Colorado made their mark on the XFINITY Series as well, but neither is on the current schedule.
From NASCAR’s perspective, it is easy to understand why this blending of schedules is happening. It makes financial sense for the sanctioning body and competitors to hold racing activities in one location each weekend. It is also important to note that most of the tracks that have survived are either International Speedway Corporation or Speedway Motorsports Inc. properties. Many of the dropped racetracks either had promoters who clashed with NASCAR (Milwaukee and Montreal), were operating on shaky financial footing (Gateway), or closed outright (Nashville Superspeedway, Nazareth, and Memphis). How can we really place blame with NASCAR for preferring to conduct business with partners that they most trust?
There is another trend, however, that must be addressed, and it is a trend as old as NASCAR itself. From the sport’s earliest days, one of Bill France’s goals was to bring “modernization” to stock car racing. That meant not only getting races covered by the mass media and building relationships with corporate America, but also promoting the movement to paved super speedways in new markets, sometimes at the expense of small town short tracks.
That spirit of modernization, the quest for bigger and better, has manifested itself in different ways over the years, but it has never left NASCAR. In fact, it is fair to suggest that greater associations with the Sprint Cup Series have become NASCAR’s way of “modernizing” the XFINITY Series. Looking at the long view, it is hard to argue against what NASCAR has done, turning a loose union of short track races into the number two stock car racing series in the United States. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that NASCAR’s national divisions have left some of the tracks that built this sport behind.
So are all these schedule changes and “modernization” really good for the XFINITY Series? It is indisputable that the sanctioning body has steadily raised the profile of its second-tier division. However, there is definitely a danger to making the XFINITY Series too much like the Cup Series. Both divisions already feature many of the same teams and same drivers. If the XFINITY Series reaches a point where it runs the same tracks on the same weekend as the Cup Series all the time, then the value of both divisions is going to suffer.
All of NASCAR’s different series must have something unique to offer. In that regard, it is time to find some tracks separate from the Cup Series with which the XFINITY Series can build its own identity. Schedule blending has undeniable benefits for NASCAR, but if the sanctioning body goes too far, they will find that the practice is too much of a good thing.