Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – New tracks, road courses and a dirt race—NASCAR fulfilled its mission of expanding its sphere of influence with the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule, announced Wednesday afternoon.
With the addition of road course races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Tex., and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., NASCAR has doubled the number of road-course events on the schedule—retaining the races at Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte Roval.
For the first time since Sept. 30, 1970, when NASCAR’s top series raced at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, the Cup Series will race on dirt (Mar. 28), after a short-term transformation of the concrete surface at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The addition of Nashville Superspeedway to the schedule (June 20) is another of many substantive changes to next year’s rotation of race tracks. Darlington Raceway gets two events next year, on May 9 and Sept. 5 (retaining its position as the Playoff opener).
The successful rebuilding of the 2020 Cup schedule after a hiatus forced by the coronavirus pandemic informed some of the sanctioning body’s decisions for 2021.
“Historic day for us—a lot of bold changes,” said NASCAR vice president Ben Kennedy during a Zoom video conference with reporters on Wednesday. “I think you saw this really as we went and started building out the 2020 schedule initially. Got to carry a lot of those over into 2021. From the Playoff schedule, Martinsville night race, Pocono doubleheader, we were able to retain a lot of those, but also a lot of significant changes as you think about 2021.
“Really nine significant ones that we have announced today. Three new tracks we’re going to, world class facilities, Circuit of The Americas, iconic facility at Road America, Nashville Superspeedway, certainly an incredibly important market to us, if you were there for the banquet last year. Certainly neat to see such a big turnout from the fans.
“Bristol dirt, another big one, big shake-up to FOX’s portion of the season. We’ll see that in March. Indy road course, I think we saw a great Xfinity race there earlier this year. We’ll get to see the Cup Series head there in August of next year.”
For the first time since 2010, Atlanta Motor Speedway will host two races, on Mar. 21 and July 11. Homestead-Miami Speedway will be the site of the second points race of the season, following the Daytona 500, in a schedule that makes abundant sense geographically.
After the first two races in Florida, the series starts its typical early-season West Coast Swing at 2.0-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., one of the last races there before its conversion to a half-mile short track. The schedule continues in Las Vegas and Phoenix before starting a five-race stint in the Southeast that includes Atlanta, the Bristol dirt race, short-track events at Martinsville and Richmond and the spring superspeedway race at Talladega.
Notably, neither Chicagoland Speedway nor Kentucky Speedway—both 1.5-mile intermediate speedways—appears on the 2021 schedule, as NASCAR strives to strike a balance between the types of venues and locations the top series visits.
“You look at some of the things we are criticized for in the past, probably somewhat fairly in terms of going away from our roots, moving races away from a Darlington, moving races away from an Atlanta,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “It was important for us to introduce new markets but also embrace what got us to where we are.
“I think you see a really great balance of that with our schedule where we’re able to go to some iconic racetracks, certainly with Road America, COTA, the change at Indy, Nashville, two races at Darlington. Our whole industry loves Darlington. Atlanta, we used to have a championship in Atlanta. Now going back there twice.
“For us, it was a real balance of trying to kind of embrace the old and also look at some new things. A lot of change certainly, for sure, but we believe it’s a good balance for both.”
Dover and Michigan will host one race each, instead of the traditional two, to help make room for the new tracks on the schedule. The Indianapolis Road Course race will replace the Brickyard 400, a staple of the Cup Series since its debut in 1994. And Texas Motor Speedway will host the NASCAR All-Star Race (June 13) as well as its customary Playoff race in the Round of 8, as the second Texas points race moves to COTA.
There are significant aspects of the schedule that remain status quo. The Pocono Raceway weekend doubleheader will take place for the second straight season, on June 26-27. The Playoff race tracks remain unchanged from 2020, with Darlington opening the postseason and Phoenix Raceway hosting the Championship 4 season finale.
The only difference in the Playoff is the swap of positions between Texas and Kansas in the Round of 8.