This article was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing Edition Vol. 2/2004
Realignment… Athlon Style
For the past few years, NASCAR has been adding, subtracting, swapping, cutting and pasting the Cup schedule. It has become clear to die-hard fans that NASCAR has less interest in staying true to its roots than in taking the series to the big markets across the country. While change is natural to any sport’s evolution, many feel that taking dates from the old tracks that have character (North Wilksboro, Darlington, Rockingham) and moving them to the new cookie-cutter tracks (California, Kansas, Chicago, Las Vegas) will make aerodynamics more important than driver skill. If we wanted follow-the-leader, spread-out-style racing, we’d watch the IRL.
We at Athlon believe that a diverse schedule that takes the sport to many areas of the country is important to the continued growth of NASCAR. At the same time, we believe that loyalty goes a long way in the eyes of the fans. The following is how we would put together the 2004 Nextel Cup schedule if we were in charge at the France Palace. We have no hidden agendas or allegiances to anyone — except to true fans. Our purpose is to provide the best, most entertaining schedule for the most avid fans while supporting NASCAR’s plans for future growth. So the SMI/ISC tug-of-war does not play into our schedule, but you better believe Darlington getting its Labor Day date back does.
2/7 Bud Shootout Daytona Int’l Speedway
2/12 Gatorade Twin 125s Daytona Int’l Speedway
2/15 Daytona 500 Daytona Int’l Speedway
2/22 Subway 400 North Carolina Motor Speedway
2/29 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Daytona is where it should be on the schedule, and what better way to follow up the glitz and glamour than with a trip to historic, quaint little ol’ Rockingham. Follow that up with a trip out west to Las Vegas, which will now fall on what was an off weekend. More about that off-weekend later.
3/7 Kentucky 400 Kentucky Speedway
3/14 Checker Auto Parts 500 Phoenix International Raceway
3/21 Golden Corral 500 Atlanta Motor Speedway
3/28 Samsung/Radio Shack 500 Texas Motor Speedway
Here’s where we start having a little fun. The drivers seem to love the new Kentucky Speedway, with most taking a trip or two up there to test each year. Give that track a date and you’ll attract the Louisville/Lexington/Cincinnati crowd. Out to Phoenix and its fun little one-mile oval, then down to Atlanta for the annual March race in the Peach State and on out to Texas, whose date is moved up one weekend.
4/4 Off-Weekend #1
4/10 Food City 500 Bristol Motor Speedway
4/18 Aaron’s 499 Talladega Superspeedway
4/25 Banquet 400 Kansas Speedway
April gets real silly. Let’s give the boys a break on the first weekend of the month. That’s seven points races to start the season followed by an off-weekend. This is a trend that will continue throughout the season. Why run 20 weekends in a row if you can space your off-dates evenly? Follow that up with the first of two Bristol night races. That’s right, run both Bristol dates on a Saturday night. Why? Because Bristol is just better at night. Talladega makes for two awesome weekends in a row on the 18th, followed by the annual bore-fest at Kansas.
5/2 Advance Auto Parts 500 Martinsville Speedway
5/9 Pocono 500 Pocono Raceway
5/16 Colorado 500 Pikes Peak Int’l Raceway
5/22 Nextel All-Star Challenge Lowe’s Motor Speedway
5/30 Coca Cola 600 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
Let’s start May at Martinsville and then head up to Pocono and pray for good weather for its one and only race of the year. Out to Pikes Peak for the inaugural Cup race there. This one mile D-shaped oval puts on a heck of a show when the Busch boys come to town. Plus, you’re hitting a new fan base and, hey, the track’s got character. The All-Star race and the 600 round out the month as usual. And by the way, we think the All-Star race should stay in Charlotte.
6/6 Off-Weekend #2
6/12 Pontiac Performance 400 Richmond International Raceway
6/20 MBNA America 400 Dover International Speedway
6/27 Michigan 400 Michigan International Speedway
Another off-weekend to start June. As with Bristol, we’re going to run both Richmond races at night. Up to Dover, because the weather should permit it by June, and then over to Michigan.
7/3 Auto Club 500 California Speedway
7/11 Tropicana 400 Chicagoland Speedway
7/17 New England 300 New Hampshire Int’l Speedway
7/25 Subway 500 Martinsville Speedway
OK, OK, before you throw a rod, let’s get one thing straight: the Labor Day date needs to be at Darlington. Therefore, we’ll throw California a bone and give them a high-profile Saturday night date on the Fourth of July weekend. We’ll get back to Daytona soon enough, don’t worry. From there, it’s up to Chicago and New Hampshire only, and we mean only, if NHIS puts some lights up. Then we go short track racin’ again at Martinsville, moving their race weekend up from October.
8/1 Off-Weekend #3
8/8 Brickyard 400 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
8/15 Dodge/Save Mart 350 Infineon Raceway
8/22 Ford 400 Homestead-Miami Speedway
8/28 Chevy Monte Carlo 400 Richmond Int’l Speedway
August starts with an off-weekend after seven weeks on the road. Indy’s weekend stays pretty much where it’s always been. No real change there. Then out to Infineon, so we can run our one and only road course. Down to Miami, which is moved up from the last weekend because let’s face it, Miami is the ultimate anticlimax to the season. Then back under the lights at Richmond for some hood stompin’.
9/5 Mountain Dew Southern 500 Darlington Raceway
9/12 Michigan 400 Michigan Int’l Speedway
9/19 Lone Star 500 Texas Motor Speedway
9/25 Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 Atlanta Motor Speedway
We’re giving Darlington its Labor Day date back, provided they run it under the lights. I doubt we’ll get too much negative feedback on that. Up to Michigan before it gets too cold. Texas gets its coveted second date which we hope will end the silly feud between NASCAR and Bruton Smith (er, we mean Francis Ferko). Finally, on to Atlanta, where AMS’ weekend gets bumped up from October. While we’re at it, let’s run Atlanta under the lights. The cars look spectacular qualifying at night, so why not turn all 43 of them loose in prime time.
10/3 EA Sports 500 Talladega Superspeedway
10/10 Off-Weekend #4
10/16 Athlon Sports 400 Nashville Superspeedway
10/23 Pop Secret 500 California Speedway
10/30 Sharpie 500 Bristol Motor Speedway
We start our stretch run at Talladega, then give everyone a week off to catch their breath. The Cup boys then visit Nashville Superspeedway for its first-ever Cup race. Even better: it’s under the lights. California gets its second date, which will also be run at night, as will the Sharpie 500 at Bristol.
11/6 UAW-GM Quality 500 Lowe’s Motor Speedway
11/13 Pepsi 400 Daytona International Speedway
11/21 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 Darlington Raceway
The months of October and November are set up to take the Series to some of its most popular events. Imagine a race for the title coming down to the final few weeks where the guys have to slug it out at tracks such as Talladega, Bristol, Lowe’s, Daytona and Darlington. In our world anything is possible, so November shapes up to be truly amazing. Lowe’s is run at night in the teams’ backyard. A Saturday night race down in Daytona, where we’ve taken their July 4th race and placed it in “the stretch run.” And finally the season wraps up at the one track that tests every driver’s mettle — Darlington.
So let’s summarize: We run a bunch of events on Saturday night because night racing rules. It’s as simple as that. Plus, that makes for more prime-time exposure. You’ve still got 36 points events, and the season still encompasses 41 weeks. Some tracks must lose a date, and some must be awarded one. Off-weekends are spread out evenly, and the end of the season brings possibly the most exciting eight-week stretch of racing imaginable. As fans of racing, we feel this is the ultimate format to watch today’s NASCAR bridge a gap between the old and the new. Now if only we could get NASCAR on the phone…