NASCAR upends Cup schedule

We tend to leave the world of NASCAR for other outlets that cover it on a full-time basis, or close to it, but this is really too big to let pass without a comment. If other considerations have prevented you from considering the moves that our neighbors here in Daytona Beach have been making over the past year, and then some, we understand. What you need to know is that quietly, compared to everything else that’s been going on, NASCAR has been edging some major realignments into place that are going to very significantly transform how it presents this fundamentally American variety of motorsport. If this is news to you, consider the 2021 Cup schedule that was released last week, which includes an abundance of changes in date, locations and format, which, taken alone in any other year but this one, would have been staggering.

Consider the photo above, taken during the 2017 Camping World Truck Series round at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. Come next year, when the Cup series shows up for the first of its two Bristol dates, the concrete track surface will be covered by a layer of dirt. Yes, the Cup crowd is finally going dirt racing again. How big a deal is this? Put it this way: The last time NASCAR’s top series raced on dirt, Jimi Hendrix was freshly deceased. The final dirt race in what was then the Grand National Series took place September 30th, 1970, when the half-mile State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh, North Carolina, presented the Home State 200. Richard Petty won it in a Plymouth by two laps over the ageless independent Neil “Soapy” Castles and Bobby Isaac, who went on to win the 1970 Grand National championship. Among the 23 starters were J.D. McDuffie, perhaps NASCAR’s most beloved independent racer, who sadly died in a 1991 crash at the Watkins Glen road course. Bristol was dirt twice before, when the World of Outlaws ran on the high-banked half-mile in 2000 and 2001, drawing some 85,000 spectators. Spectator counts at the spring Cup date, where the weather can be iffy, have been on the slide in recent years, which does a lot to explain this move. That leaves the rest of the 2021 schedule: Date losses at Kentucky and Chicagoland, two dates each at Texas and Darlington, the Brickyard 400 moving to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the All-Star racing shifting from Charlotte to Texas, plus new road course events at Road America in Wisconsin and the Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas. There’s also a new date at Nashville Superspeedway, and a second date is being added at Atlanta, where a major reconfiguration of the speedway (turned into a Charlotte-clone quad oval in 1997) is rumored as the site is prepared for a new casino and shopping complex. That’s a lot to digest, and we’re hearing that FOX Sports had a lot to say about how this schedule turned out. The longstanding criticism that NASCAR resists change now probably deserves to be shelved. It’s been a remarkable year for the France folks, generally well received, especially their COVID-modified schedule of live races and their response to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially as it affected Bubba Wallace, who’s about to go racing with Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan. Golly, what a year.

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