For years, NASCAR has been accused of being too rigid to make any significant changes to its schedule. Officials thought any deviations from the norm would keep their core fans, but as we have learned, attendance (before the pandemic) and television viewers have been on a decline for some time.
While the schedule remained virtually unchanged, NASCAR added stages to races thinking that would appeal to the casual fan. Diehard stock car fan balked at adding breaks in the action, complaining it was nothing more than a gimmick. NASCAR also added a playoff system similar to other major sports, and for the most part, fans and drivers alike don’t seem to have any issues with it.
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Despite those additions, it did not add any fannies in the seats or draw more eyeballs to their broadcasts. But then the pandemic struck, creating the kind of scheduling headache you wouldn’t wish on a hated local track owner. Forced to adapt, NASCAR tried several things like weekday races (if you notice, none exist for 2021) and doubleheaders. Even before COVID-19 shut down racing for two months, a twin-bill was part of last year’s original schedule, and it returns this season.
Maybe it was in the works beforehand, but the pandemic pandemonium awakened something in NASCAR officials. The sport was changing from the old guard to the new breed of star drivers, and they needed something that could appeal to the longtime fans as well as the casual ones while hoping to bring in a fresh set of eyes. Hence, a massive restructuring of the 2021 calendar.
Survey after survey showed that NACAR needed more short track and road course racing. For now, the only change will be trying a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Another will come online when Auto Club Speedway is reconfigured from a 2-mile D-Shaped Oval into a half-mile track.
NASCAR has about one-fifth of its 2021 schedule on road courses
As far as road courses, the diehards got their wish. NASCAR will go to the Circuit of The Americas on May 23 for the first time. Road America is back on the Cup Series schedule, where it hasn’t visited since 1956. Then there is the Aug. 15 event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Those three will join Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and the Charlotte Roval, making six regularly scheduled tracks where right turns are mandated.
But wait, there’s more.
NASCAR was so concerned about COVID-19 numbers in California back in December that they pulled it from the schedule. Instead of heading out west, all three national series will stay at Daytona International Speedway for an additional week to race on its road course.
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Out of a 36-race calendar, about a fifth of it will be on tracks other than ovals. That is an enormous change from the past. And you can bet there are many road course ‘ringers’ already salivating, including Chase Elliott. Since Aug. 4, 2019, last year’s Cup Series champion won four straight - Watkins Glen, Charlotte Roval, Daytona Road Course, and a repeat at the Roval. NASCAR opened this season with the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course for the first time, and Elliott’s streak came to an end but still finished second.
Expect to see many of the so-called ringers at these seven events, such as AJ Allmendinger, Alex Tagliani, Boris Said, Marcos Ambrose, Justin Marks, and possibly Max Papis. Elliott will still have his hands full with Cup Series regulars, but with his recent success, don’t bet against him finding the winner’s circle in many of them.
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