I don’t know about you, but I was certainly let down by all the hype around this week’s announcement by NASCAR of its 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. I’m still trying to figure out what all the excitement was about.
I mean, NASCAR sure made it sound like there might be some big news (read: big changes) coming when the schedule was announced.
The communications and messaging gurus at NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications group had both their current broadcast partner, Fox Sports 1, and future partner, NBC Sports, make almost simultaneous announcements during the same time period Tuesday afternoon.
So, what was the big news?
To be honest, there really wasn’t any. A few tracks will shift their dates either forward or backward a week, and Darlington Raceway will get the Southern 500 back on Labor Day weekend, where the race had been held for decades. More on the Darlington saga in just a bit.
NASCAR brought out one of its top guns, Executive Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell, to talk about the schedule live on NBC Sports. It’s O’Donnell’s group that is responsible for putting the schedule together.
You just had to feel bad for him having to appear on live television to discuss a few ho-hum scheduling moves and then dispel any hopes of a real shake-up in the schedule—something the sport desperately needs and that fans have made clear needs to happen.
I’ll admit that I don’t want to be one of the people whose job it is to sit down and figure out which race belongs on which date. It has to be a tough gig. They’ve got a group of capable people that worked on it. But the schedule comes across as a “darn, we need to get this thing finished before the Chase starts” project, where all good intentions while planning for the new schedule were scrapped once the process was in play.
It was another of NASCAR’s small steps toward the future at a time when it should be making giant leaps.
A few thoughts about the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule:
• It looks like Atlanta Motor Speedway, which hosts this weekend’s Cup race, gets the short straw once again by having its date shifted back to the spring—March 1, to be exact, which is the second race on the schedule.
AMS used to have a spring date several years ago that disappeared because, as we are reminded by Jim Utter of The Charlotte Observer, who quotes AMS track president Ed Clark, “It was too early in the season and too cold for campers."
If you thought that Atlanta Motor Speedway, where NASCAR boss Mike Helton ran the show before moving into the corporate tower in Daytona Beach, would get special treatment, you thought wrong.
• NASCAR put all three of its early spring West Coast dates in a row. Las Vegas, Phoenix and the “we’re still going to make this thing work” Auto Club Speedway in California have races on March 8, 15 and 22, respectively, following Atlanta.
NASCAR is already calling it “the West Coast Swing,” a moniker the NHRA drag racing series has been using for decades to describe its own three-race West Coast run of Denver (where NASCAR wants to race but hasn’t figured it out yet), Sonoma (where it already races) and Seattle (where NASCAR definitely doesn’t need to race).
• Pocono still gets its two dates, and before you complain that they are too close together—and/or that the race is boring—keep in mind that this year’s editions were very competitive, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning both races. That Junior won at Pocono should dispel most negative comments about the Tricky Triangle for a few years for fear of belittling his accomplishment.
• I’m still trying to come to grips with Kansas having two dates, including one in the Chase. The only conclusion I can come to is that NASCAR has enjoyed moderate success over the years having a race track next to a casino in Dover, so why not Kansas? I’m convinced that if he could, Bruton Smith would build one next door to his Las Vegas and Texas tracks.
• NASCAR made a big deal about moving the July Daytona race to Sunday night when it probably would have ended up there anyway given the weather delays we’ve seen at the Florida superspeedway over the years. Now, when the race is delayed because of weather, it will have to run Monday. Check to see if your boss is giving you the day after July 4 off.
What other road course should NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series race on?
• The road courses at Sonoma (the race was moved a week later) and Watkins Glen are still on the schedule. The tracks play host to what may arguably be two of the more more competitive and entertaining races of the season. I’d not want to spoil that, but another road course—and a $1 million Triple Crown bonus for winning all three—seems in order. Where to race? The third race should be at Montreal, which hosted wildly competitive Nationwide Series races for six years (2007-12).
Race organizers cite a drop in attendance for the race being canceled, but the truth might be closer to what the automotive website for the Toronto Star, Wheels.ca, points to as the reason: mismanagement.
• The obvious next choice would be Circuit of the Americas, the 3.42-mile road racing showcase built outside of Austin, Texas. NASCAR already has its sports cars, the Tudor United Sports Cars Series, racing there, so hopefully it will lay the groundwork for the Sprint Cup Series to follow.
• Almost since the start of the Chase, fans have been calling for a road course in the 10-race championship run. NASCAR missed a great opportunity to do that in 2015, so maybe that will happen in 2016. Sonoma seems to be the logical choice due to weather concerns. Unless they take me up on my suggestion and go to COTA.
• NASCAR has done just about everything to mess with “The Lady in Black,” Darlington, over the past decade, and she’s answered back every time, reminding all of us that she is also “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”
When NASCAR moved Darlington’s Southern 500 from its traditional Labor Day weekend date, it was like moving Christmas from December 25.
The race and the date seemed inseparable. It found a home on Mother’s Day weekend, traditionally a weekend off for the Sprint Cup teams. But NASCAR was smart enough to run the race the day before Mother’s Day and involve the drivers' mothers. It worked so well that Darlington added seating to accommodate fans.
Then NASCAR took the Mother’s Day weekend away from Darlington and gave it a standalone date. It still worked.
Now, it’s as if the Lady will get back what is rightfully hers—the Labor Day weekend. Maybe there is a heart that beats within the walls of the steel-and-glass tower in Daytona Beach.
• Then there are the 10 Chase races. It’s obvious that there needs to be a shuffling of those tracks, especially after six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was quoted as saying that nine of the 10 tracks are his best tracks. Some have suggested adding Eldora. Sounds interesting, but the track and the venue are too small unless you make it a 10-car race and limit the crowd to 5,000.
How about adding Bristol? Richmond would be a better choice. There’s better racing there. A road course for sure (Sonoma or COTA), and the finale should remain in Homestead. After a long season, it’s only fair to end it at a competitive track, with a supportive city and great beaches and restaurants for the sponsors.
• It does seem logical that the small changes announced for 2015 are in line with the way NASCAR likes to move—slowly and with great thought given beforehand.
NASCAR’s television partners, Fox and NBC Sports, are paying enormous sums of money for the rights to broadcast races. A major portion of that money goes to the tracks. The broadcast partners will eventually flex their muscles and ask for bigger changes like mid-week races, more nighttime races and additional creative elements like side-by-side commercials all the time.
Next time, NASCAR, when you throw all the hype, please say something special.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis