Friday 5: Schedule change part of NASCAR’s broader makeover

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NASCAR’s transformation of the Cup schedule shows a sport in motion, willing to change, seeking new audiences and continuing to reimagine itself as it looks to 2022 and beyond.

New markets are a priority. Short tracks are in demand. Risks are encouraged.

When next year arrives, nearly a quarter of the Cup schedule will have changed since 2019. That includes a race on dirt, one in a football stadium and another at a track previously abandoned by NASCAR.

Times change. Doing the same thing becomes stale. The sport needed a jolt. First, it was the playoff system. Then, it was the car. Now, it’s the schedule.

“I think our sport is much more open-minded to change,” former champion Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports. “It’s not ‘We’ve gone here, we’ve got to keep going here.’ It’s more ‘We’re going to go here because it’s better for the sport. It’s interesting. It’s exciting. Whatever that scenario is, it’s different.’

“In today’s world, people just like new and different, and you have to keep it mixed up and keep it fresh.”

Change in the sport has become nearly constant to the new generation of Cup drivers.

“It’s no big deal for me,” William Byron said of next year’s schedule alterations.

The 23-year-old, who entered Cup in 2018, has seen new events on the schedule each year except one.

More new races are likely on the way.

Speedway Motorsports continues its bid to operate Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and return Cup racing to the 0.596-mile track as early as 2023.

Auto Club Speedway has plans to go from a 2-mile track to a half-mile facility.

There remains interest in a street course race in Chicago, but many factors, including politics, will determine if that event happens or takes place only on iRacing. NASCAR also has interest in the New York City region.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan this week that the next step for the series is “continuing to keep the schedule fresh and entering some of these new markets.”

NASCAR schedule questions stadium
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home to two Olympics (and a third in 2028) and the University of Southern California football team, will host the NASCAR Clash on Feb. 6, 2022. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The NASCAR Clash next February puts a Cup race near downtown Los Angeles a week before the city hosts the Super Bowl.

Next year’s Cup debut at World Wide Technology Raceway, located a few miles from St. Louis, puts the series in the nation’s 23rd largest TV market, according to the Nielsen Designated Market Area list. Indianapolis, Nashville and Kansas City are among cities that rank behind St. Louis.

NASCAR’s debut at Circuit of the Americas this year moved a Cup race to Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Fans have responded to NASCAR’s recent changes to the schedule.

Circuit of the Americas had a large crowd despite rain during the Cup race. Nashville Superspeedway sold out about 38,000 seats for the Cup race. Road America saw some of its largest crowds in years with the Xfinity-Cup doubleheader during the July 4 weekend.

There was a time NASCAR was not as daring with the schedule, though. From 2002-17, only one track was added to the Cup schedule – Kentucky Speedway in 2011. Its last Cup race was 2019.

NASCAR’s focus then was on how it determined a champion instead of adding to the schedule. The Chase debuted in 2004 with 10 title contenders. The field expanded to 12 in 2007. The format was tweaked in 2011.

The playoff format was unveiled in 2014 with 16 drivers, eliminations and one race determining the champion. Stage racing and playoff points were introduced in 2017.

It wasn’t until the format came together that NASCAR focused on the schedule. In 2018, Chicagoland and New Hampshire were moved out of the playoffs for Las Vegas and Richmond. The Charlotte Roval debuted that season.

The Cup championship weekend moved from Homestead to Phoenix in 2020. Next year will mark the third consecutive year Phoenix has hosted the title weekend.

“My opinion is that the championship race should never be at the same racetrack two years in a row,” Harvick said. “There should be a rotation.

“The (10 playoff) races should never look the same. Should always be mixed up as you go from year to year because it keeps it fresh, it keeps it interesting, it keeps everybody guessing.”

That’s just among the many changes in recent years to the schedule.

Races on the 2019 schedule that are not on the 2022 schedule:

  • The Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona
  • The Bristol spring race (on concrete)
  • The Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte
  • Chicagoland Speedway
  • Kentucky Speedway
  • A Pocono race
  • A Michigan race
  • A Dover race
  • The oval at Indianapolis
  • A second points race at Texas

In place of those races on the 2022 schedule are:

  • The NASCAR Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum
  • The Bristol Dirt race
  • The NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas
  • World Wide Technology Raceway
  • Circuit of the Americas
  • Nashville Superspeedway
  • Road America
  • A second race at Atlanta
  • The road course at Indianapolis
  • A second race at Darlington
NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400
The crowd at the start of the inaugural Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway in June. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Among the changes next year will be the Bristol Dirt race moving to Easter night. NASCAR last raced on Easter in 1989 due to weather.

Once NASCAR was comfortable scheduling a Cup race on Mother’s Day, it made it easier to look at racing on Easter.

“You think about the amount of other sports that play on Thanksgiving or a number of different holidays,” Kennedy said. “At the end of the day, we’re kind of no exception. Race on Mother’s Day, race on Presidents Day weekend and on Easter Sunday, too, so I think it’ll be exciting and interesting to see how it performs.

The sport also is looking at other options for races, including some sites outside the U.S.

“I think the (NASCAR Clash at the) L.A. Coliseum and a concept like this brings about the ability to go to different markets,” Kennedy said. “And in particular as we think about international markets as well. There’s a ton of soccer stadiums across the world, and being able to duplicate this in other markets, I think really turns this into a proof of concept as well.”

Another change with the schedule is the move away from Saturday night races, traditionally a weak TV viewing night.

The 2022 schedule has three Saturday night races – Martinsville on April 9, the regular-season finale Aug. 27 at Daytona and the Bristol Night Race on Sept. 17.

There were seven Saturday night races on the 2019 schedule. Among those that have moved to Sunday include the All-Star Race and the Darlington Cup race that went from the night before Mother’s Day to running on that day.

One change Harvick would like to see in the coming years is with the All-Star Race.

“I still believe the All-Star Race is underutilized in what we could use it for racing in general,” he said. “When you look at SRX (the summer short track series started by Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham) and you look at the racetracks that they went to and you see the reaction to that particular series and the things that they did on short tracks, I think the All-Star Race would be a great way to re-energize the short track community.”

Going to a local short track not only could provide energy but also aid the grassroots community, Harvick said. The event could help that particular track generate enough income to add enhancements for fans and competitors. That way, the event would leave something behind when it heads to another track.

“You go to markets,” Harvick said, “you’re going to fill the place up and be able to help rebuild that short track program that we really haven’t had an opportunity to do in a number of years since (former series sponsor) Winston left, because of the fact there’s not just been an influx of money and attention that goes with it like Winston put on the short track system.”

2. Turnaround

Kurt Busch enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) holding the last transfer spot via a tiebreaker over Alex Bowman.

Last year, Busch entered the Bristol cutoff race four points above the cutline. He advanced.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Kurt Busch celebrating his Bristol win in August 2018.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Busch has six career Cup wins at Bristol, making this an optimal track to be a cutoff event for him. But Bristol wasn’t always a good place for him. He finished 42nd in his first Cup race there in March 2001.

“My first race there, I wrecked like four or five different times, ran out of radiators and they didn’t even have a tunnel to walk out of back then,” Busch told NBC Sports. “My sponsor at the time, Sharpie, sponsored the night race and I’m like ‘Oh boy, I better figure this place out pretty quick.’

“It just clicked. When (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and I started working together, he had these cool Mark Martin setups. I just loved hanging it out and ripping it around there, and it’s turned out to be one of my favorite tracks throughout my career.”

Busch won in his third career Cup start at Bristol in March 2002. That started a streak of four wins in the next five races there. His most recent win at Bristol was August 2018.

“I love Bristol,” he said. “I love the lap times there, cranking out 15-second lap times in a little bullring like that and then the atmosphere there is great.”

3. Early surge

Denny Hamlin’s win at Darlington moved him into the next round but overlooked is how many playoff points he’s scored in the first two playoff races.

NASCAR Power Rankings
Denny Hamlin‘s fast start in the playoffs has helped him collect key playoff points. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Hamlin has won three of four stages. Added to his win (worth five playoff points), he’s scored eight playoff points in the last two races.

That’s important because playoff points likely will matter in who advances in the following rounds, particularly the championship round.

Hamlin has 23 playoff points entering the Bristol race. Every driver who reached the championship race via points had at least 26 playoff points.

Here’s a look at how many playoff points each driver has entering Bristol:

53 – Kyle Larson

29 – Martin Truex Jr.

24 – Ryan Blaney

23 – Denny Hamlin

22 – Kyle Busch

21 – Chase Elliott

15 – Alex Bowman

14 – William Byron

13 – Joey Logano

8 – Brad Keselowski

8 – Kurt Busch

5 – Christopher Bell

5 – Aric Almirola

5 – Michael McDowell

3 – Tyler Reddick

2 – Kevin Harvick

4. Xfinity showdown 

Tonight’s Xfinity race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) marks the end of the regular season. Three playoff spots remain.

Jeremy Clements (+74), Brandon Jones (+67) and Riley Herbst (+66) hold the final three spots. 

Also on the line is the regular season crown. Austin Cindric leads AJ Allmendinger by five points.

Cindric had an 82-point lead on Allmendinger after winning on the Indianapolis road course last month. Since then, Allmendinger won at Michigan, finished second at Daytona, placed 20th at Darlington and was 18th at Richmond.

Allmendinger has been helped by Cindric’s troubles. Cindric was 37th at Michigan after an incident, finished 39th at Daytona because of a crash, was third at Darlington and placed 16th at Richmond.

“It’s a pretty fluid weekend for us,” Cindric said. “It’s the difference of five playoff points. It’s been a tough month in August, almost losing 100 points in two races. That really derailed our hopes, or at least our comfort, for that. 

“I would say in the Xfinity Series, five points, it’s not that it’s harder to make up than in the Cup Series, but the amount of cars that gain stage points – realistically, anybody you’re gonna be racing against in the Xfinity Series gains stage points, so your gains are cut in half. 

“We really have to have a standout day under normal circumstances for us to be able to clinch this or at least get it to where it’s tied.”

Said AJ Allmendinger this week on MotorMouths: “The last couple of weeks, we’ve had really fast race cars. We haven’t quite executed the way we needed to. We could have had a bigger points lead.”

5. Young talent

Among the athletes who are represented by Kevin Harvick Inc. are a pair of teenagers.

One is a racer. The other is a bull rider.

Nicholas Jackson won the 2020 Jr. bull riding championship in his age group. While KHI represents drivers, UFC fighters and golfers, a 13-year-old bull rider was new.

“He has huge potential,” Harvick told NBC Sports about Jackson. “We’ve helped take pressure off the family from a financial standpoint to focus on making him the best human being and focus on also being able to be great at what he does.”

The racer is Brent Crews, a 13-year-old, who ranks second in the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget standings.

“He’s one of those that is just a diamond in the rough that is going to have great potential to race whatever he wants to race,” Harvick said of Crews. “He’s already raced and won all over the world. You see him win in the POWRi midgets this year.

“The hardest part with Brent is just trying to keep up with his potential and evolution and progression through his career because he learns so fast and accomplishes things so fast that you have to figure out what’s next pretty quick.”

KHI added Jackson, Crews and Keelan Harvick (Kevin Harvick’s son) as part of the company’s Youth Sports Division in February.

“We always pride ourselves on being small,” Kevin Harvick said. “I think that’s one thing that allows us to kind of tailor the program to each athlete, learn each sanctioning body in different sports because they all are different, but they all teach us something about that we can do better.

“From the sponsor side of things, I think it’s important to have assets that are all over the board just because of the fact everybody has customers that may not like racing, they may not like UFC, they may not like golf, bull riding. Surely we have something that they may like across the board that allows them to entertain people outside of just racing.”

That’s been a factor for Harvick who has built relationships with many companies throughout his career.

Now, he’s partnering with Xfinity, promoting the Xfinity Rewards program for Xfinity customers. Among the rewards are a sweepstakes for the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway and another for the NASCAR championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

Also, Xfinity customers can receive access to NASCAR Scanner, allowing them to listen to in-car audio during races.

“I think that’s what a lot of people, especially people who are new to our sport don’t understand, all the information you can get access to in order to make that race more inserting to you and you can kind of tailor the race to how you want to watch it,” Harvick said of the NASCAR Scanner.

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.