CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR promised radical changes to the 2021 schedule and delivered Wednesday with six road courses, the first dirt race for the Cup Series since 1970 and new stops in Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas.
Dropped from the lineup were Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway, two “cookie-cutter” intermediate tracks that were part of a staid schedule that lacked variation or originality. Michigan International Speedway, Dover International Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway each lost one of two Cup Series points races.
Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Speedway in South Carolina each added a second race to their schedules.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway will move the Cup Series cars to its road course after 27 years of racing on the big oval. The revamped “Brickyard Weekend” also will feature a new IndyCar Series race, making it a doubleheader for the second year in a row.
Indinapolis joins Road America in rural Wisconsin and the Circuit of the Americas in Austin as new road course events on a schedule that already included Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and the Charlotte Roval. NASCAR for decades ran at just two road courses each season and will now have six to satisfy fans who have begged for more diversity on the schedule.
Speedway Motorsports will promote the road course event at COTA after moving its traditional spring date at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth to the venue. To compensate for the loss of the points race at TMS, Speedway Motorsports has moved the All-Star race from Charlotte to Fort Worth.
“Everything is bigger in Texas, including our passion for NASCAR and NASCAR will be even bigger and better in Texas in 2021 with the addition of this race in Austin,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said.
The All-Star race began in 1985 and was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway every year but one until this season, when the pandemic caused a relocation to Bristol Motor Speedway in East Tennessee.
Bristol will also experiment with a dirt race by filling the 0.533-mile bullring with dirt for the first race of its kind since Richard Petty won at the half-mile State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh on September 30, 1970.
The March 28 dirt race will replace Bristol’s traditional spring race on the concrete as NASCAR chose the track over dozens of existing and proven dirt tracks across the country. The most noticeable snub was to the Tony Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway in Ohio, which hosted the Truck Series from 2013 until this year’s race was canceled by the pandemic.
NASCAR scheduled a full release of the 2021 lineup later Wednesday, but individual tracks began announcing their plans earlier.
Kentucky Speedway is off the schedule for the first time since 2011. The original owners of the track in Sparta filed a federal lawsuit against NASCAR for the right to host a Cup Series race and the fight dragged on from 2005 until 2009. Speedway Motorsports eventually bought the property and moved a race to Kentucky in 2011.
The battle to land Cup races has long been difficult as NASCAR controlled the schedule and tracks paid sanctioning fees to host events. Because NASCAR also owned most of the major facilities, it controlled the market and dictated which tracks got Cup races.
Legal challenges began in 2002 when a Texas man named Francis Ferko filed a lawsuit demanding a second race at Texas Motor Speedway. The suit dragged on until settlement talks between Speedway Motorsports, owner of Texas Motor Speedway, and International Speedway Corp., the arm of NASCAR that controlled its properties, delivered a second race to Fort Worth.
Little has changed to the schedule since Kentucky was added, and in 2015 NASCAR signed five-year sanctioning agreements with the tracks that guaranteed race dates through 2020. The contracts left little room for overhaul, but NASCAR understood fans had grown disgruntled with the same old schedule.
NASCAR vowed to address it in 2021, the first year after the contracts expired. The pandemic this season forced a slew of changes, including doubleheader weekends, midweek races and a shared weekend with IndyCar.
The 2021 schedule has no midweek races on it because television ratings did not match the perceived fan enthusiasm for Wednesday nights.