Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, August 30, 2010

Montreal Proving to Be NASCAR Country

Sure, the Sprint Cup Series had the weekend off, but that didn't mean there wasn't any NASCAR excitement to be had. And I'm not referring to Kyle Busch winning the Camping World Truck Series race at Chicagoland Speedway on Friday night.

Because let's face it, Busch winning a Truck race isn't all that noteworthy.

But the Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Quebec more than made up for the lack of drama, as it has every year the series has run on the picturesque road course. A quick primer of the track's NASCAR history:

-In 2007, Robby Gordon was sure he'd won after late-race contact with Marcos Ambrose. But NASCAR black-flagged Gordon, and he ignored the flag, so NASCAR took the win away from him. Kevin Harvick went on to win the first Nationwide Series race held at CGV, and both Harvick and Gordon did celebratory burnouts on the frontstretch.

-The 2008 race marked the first time that one of NASCAR's three national touring series ran in the rain. New tires made the move possible, though attachable windshield wipers and brake lights proved less than effective. Ambrose dominated the race, but a pit road speeding penalty cost him. Canadian Ron Fellows, driving for JR Motorsports, won the rain-shortened event.

-Ambrose again dominated at Montreal in 2009, but he hit the curb in the last corner on the final lap, sailed high heading to the finish line, and Carl Edwards got around him for the win.

The 2010 race was perhaps better than those three combined, though, thanks to the action throughout the day and a classic finish between Boris Said and Max Papis that was the fifth-closest in series history.

Rather than try to explain it, I offer video. It speaks for itself.

Said's win is the first in his Nationwide Series career, but the race begs the larger question of whether the track deserves a larger stage in the world of stock car racing. Stock car action at Montreal isn't unique to the Nationwide Series, either; check out the finish from Sunday's NASCAR Canadian Tire Series race:

So does CGV deserve a Sprint Cup race? Politics aside -- you know neither International Speedway Corp. or Speedway Motorsports, Inc. would give up one of their Cup dates for another track not owned by them -- I say yes. Canada has proven how passionate it is about racing, not just NASCAR, and I say it's time to reward them with a Cup date.

The stands have been packed every time the Nationwide Series has come to Montreal, unlike the races in Mexico City, which saw attendance declines every year until the series stopped running there entirely. Add that to the fact that Canadians often cross the border to watch Cup races -- Michigan International Speedway says 15 percent of its ticket sales go to Canadians, while 10 percent of those who buy tickets to New Hampshire Motor Speedway go to those who live north of the border.

Road course racing is one of the most polarizing aspects of NASCAR, but I love it. It's different, and in recent years, they've been among the most action-packed races on the schedule. The Nationwide Series made its debut at Road America earlier this season, and it was one of the best races of the year.

I think the Cup schedule needs more road courses, including one in the Chase, and I think Montreal -- which also hosts the Canadian Grand Prix for Formula 1 -- would fit in just fine for America's premiere motorsports series.

Regardless of whether Montreal gets that much-deserved Cup race, it has become a staple of the Nationwide Series and one of the series' destination races. The action never fails to disappoint, and the fans embrace the sport better than some of the tracks on this side of the border. That loyalty deserves to be rewarded, and I think NASCAR would do well to put its highest-profile, most talented series on the twists and turns at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

But what do I know? I'm just a fan.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

GREAT News for Martinsville

Martinsville Speedway announced on Thursday that, thanks to a deal between International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the 0.528-mile flat track will host two Sprint Cup Series races annually for the next five years.

The VTC will pony up $1.5 million for facility upgrades, which the speedway will match. As a result, ISC and NASCAR, which are both owned by the France family, will keep the Sprint Cup Series in southeastern Virginia twice a year through at least 2015.

According to the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin, upgrades to the track will include the creation of a new on/off ramp for race traffic that should help flow before and after the race. The money will also go to upgrading the track's concession and bathroom facilities along the frontstretch (as a fan who's attended the spring race at Martinsville annually since 2002, I can say these are sorely needed upgrades).

The first phase of upgrades will begin at the conclusion of the Sprint Cup race this October, and are scheduled to be completed by the time the series returns for the first Cup race next season on April 3. Track president Clay Campbell said the time between races made operating in phases necessary, and might explain in part the five-year deal.

Obviously, the fact that Martinsville is "safe" for the next five years will excite the local economy and hardcore NASCAR fans alike. Since Rockingham and Darlington lost races in the last decade in favor of larger media markets and tracks that produce arguably dull racing, some fans have feared Martinsville would be next.

Those fans dodged a bullet when ISC awarded Kansas Speedway a second Cup date in 2011 at the expense of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Attendance woes and a general apathy in southern California made ACS a prime candidate for contraction.

Rockingham and Darlington were also targeted because of low fan turnout and facility issues. Fans weren't buying tickets and the tracks were definitely showing their age. I love those two tracks, but the economics made the decision inevitable. Besides, Darlington has thrived with one Cup date, starting its own tradition by running a night race on Mother's Day weekend.

Something tells me Atlanta Motor Speedway (owned by Bruton Smith and his Speedway, Motorsports, Inc. company) will also benefit in the long run by only having one date.

But Martinsville is different; it is the last original NASCAR track, and it is the shortest track on the circuit. When NASCAR comes to Martinsville, it's like a blast from the past. Fans get to see what the sport was like in the early days, before multi-million dollar TV deals and sponsorship packages. There's an authenticity about Martinsville that few other tracks can duplicate, and I'm beyond thrilled that it still has its rightful place in the sport.

Memo to fans and track operators: this is how you keep your dates. Fans park their butts in the seats after buying tickets, and track operators re-invest their profits into making their facilities better. Martinsville has not sold out lately, but few tracks have -- in fact, Martinsville has largely been one of the better-attended tracks, in part because of the quality of racing and the fact that Campbell has lowered ticket prices in response to the economy.

Don't point to the attendance for the race this past March. Since the race was pushed to Monday by weather, the attendance figures would be slightly skewed.

Campbell has poured money into his track over the last several years. He's added seating, installed a new video scoring tower (rivaled only by the behemoth recently erected by Richmond International Raceway) and is now planning to make the experience even easier for the fans over several phases.

As a reward, NASCAR will keep bringing its premiere series twice a year for the next five years. And that's great news for everyone.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2011 Schedules Released

I know I'm late with this, but you'll have to forgive me. There was so much to talk about coming out of Bristol Motor Speedway this past weekend that just about anything not related to Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski would've been swept under the proverbial rug.

Still, the release of the 2011 schedules last week was anticipated, given all the changes NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France promised. There are changes, but not as sweeping as one might've expected -- or hoped.

Below are the 2011 schedules for the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series. Analysis will follow.

2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Schedule

Feb. 18 -- Daytona
Feb. 25 -- Phoenix
March 12 -- Darlington
April 2 -- Martinsville
April 22 -- Nashville
May 13 -- Dover
May 20 -- Charlotte
June 4 -- Kansas
June 10 -- Texas
July 16 -- Iowa
July 22 -- Nashville
July 29 -- ORP
Aug. 6 -- Pocono
Aug. 20 -- Michigan
Aug. 24 -- Bristol
Sept. 2 -- Atlanta
Sept. 16 -- Chicago
Sept. 24 -- Loudon
Oct. 1 -- Kentucky
Oct. 15 -- Las Vegas
Oct. 22 -- Talladega
Oct. 29 -- Martinsville
Nov. 4 -- Texas
Nov. 18 -- Homestead

Not too many surprises or changes to the Camping World Truck Series schedule -- Texas, Nashville and Martinsville are the only tracks the series visits twice -- but two moves that I like: moving Darlington from the heat of the summer to the third race of the season, and letting Pocono return. The trucks' first visit to the Pennsylvania triangle this season was a smashing success, and I'm glad they'll be returning.

The series will not return to Gateway in 2011, as the track has forfeited its Truck and Nationwide Series race dates.

2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series Schedule

Feb. 19 -- Daytona
Feb. 26 -- Phoenix
March 5 -- Las Vegas
March 19 -- Bristol
March 26 -- Fontana
April 8 -- Texas
April 16 -- Talladega
April 23 -- Nashville
April 29 -- Richmond
May 6 -- Darlington
May 14 -- Dover
May 22 -- Iowa
May 28 -- Charlotte
June 4 -- Chicago
June 18 -- Michigan
June 25 -- Road America
July 1 -- Daytona
July 8 -- Kentucky
July 16 -- Loudon
July 23 -- Nashville
July 30 -- ORP
Aug. 6 -- Iowa
Aug. 13 -- Watkins Glen
Aug. 20 -- Montreal
Aug. 26 -- Bristol
Sept. 3 -- Atlanta
Sept. 9 -- Richmond
Sept. 17 -- Chicago
Oct. 1 -- Dover
Oct. 8 -- Kansas
Oct. 14 -- Charlotte
Nov. 5 -- Texas
Nov. 12 -- Phoenix
Nov. 19 -- Homestead

A few more changes are apparent in the Nationwide Series schedule, namely the addition of a second race to both Iowa and Chicago. Iowa has seen tremendous fan support in its two Nationwide Series races to date, and it'll be interesting to see how that support holds up with the addition of the second date. Same goes for Chicago, which has been ... lukewarm to NASCAR once the novelty of the track in Joliet, Ill. wore off.

There was talk of moving the race at O'Reilly Raceway Park across town to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; fortunately, that didn't happen. We need as many short tracks as we can get in NASCAR's three national touring series, and ORP offers some of the best action in the relative lull of the summer stretch.

Also of interest to me? Back-to-back road courses in August, as the series goes to Watkins Glen and then Montreal.

2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Schedule

Feb. 12 -- Budweiser Shootout at Daytona
Feb. 17 -- Gatorade Duels at Daytona
Feb. 20 -- Daytona
Feb. 27 -- Phoenix
March 6 -- Las Vegas
March 20 -- Bristol
March 27 -- Fontana
April 3 -- Martinsville
April 9 -- Texas
April 17 -- Talladega
April 30 -- Richmond
May 7 -- Darlington
May 15 -- Dover
May 21 -- Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte
May 29 -- Charlotte
June 5 -- Kansas
June 12 -- Pocono
June 19 -- Michigan
June 26 -- Infineon
July 2 -- Daytona
July 9 -- Kentucky
July 17 -- Loudon
July 31 -- Indianapolis
Aug. 7 -- Pocono
Aug. 14 -- Watkins Glen
Aug. 21 -- Michigan
Aug. 27 -- Bristol
Sept. 4 -- Atlanta
Sept. 10 -- Richmond
***Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup***
Sept. 18 -- Chicago
Sept. 25 -- Loudon
Oct. 2 -- Dover
Oct. 9 -- Kansas
Oct. 15 -- Charlotte
Oct. 23 -- Talladega
Oct. 30 -- Martinsville
Nov. 6 -- Texas
Nov. 13 --Phoenix
Nov. 20 -- Homestead

While there are changes -- Fontana and Atlanta each lose a date, Kentucky gains one, Kansas gains a second date, Chicago is moved from July to the first race in the Chase -- they're not surprising or as impactful as many hoped (see my previous post "If I Ran NASCAR" to see my opinions on the schedule). Still, I think Atlanta only hosting one Cup race will be a good thing in the long run, and I like the first Martinsville race being pushed back a week. It might not seem like much, but it could be huge given the climate in that part of Virginia.

But one thing that bugs me ... going from Bristol to Fontana to Martinsville in back-to-back weeks? I'm guessing whoever organizes the NASCAR schedule doesn't own a map or has never had to drive a transporter cross-country.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Historic Sweep Comes With Controversy

Well, you know Kyle Busch can't do anything quietly.

Busch completed a historic sweep this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to sweep all three national touring series races in one weekend. After taking the Camping World Truck Series O'Reilly 200 on Wednesday, Busch won the Nationwide Series Food City 250 on Friday and dominated the Irwin Tools Night Race on Saturday.

But if you think it was all clean and easy ... well, you don't know Busch all that well, do you?

With 32 laps to go on Friday's Nationwide Series race, Busch raced side-by-side with Brad Keselowski. Busch had a run coming off Turn 2, but got loose and slid in front of Keselowski. Keselowski had nowhere to go, clipping the right rear of Busch's car and sending it into the wall. Keselowski went by going into Turn 3, but Busch banged into the back of Keselowski and sent him spinning into the wall.

Busch went on to win the race, much to the chagrin of many of those in attendance. Not that he cared, mocking the fans for their booing before proceeding to admit in a live television interview that he effectively pulled a Carl Edwards.

Don't believe me? Watch:

Keselowski did not retaliate Saturday night -- partly because he's still on probation following his dust-up with Edwards at Gateway -- but he did manage to get off this little shot during driver introductions:

Sadly, the video is censored. For those who can't lip-read, Keselowski called Busch an ass. Over the loudspeaker. In front of roughly 150,000 fans -- the vast majority of whom loved it.

Set aside the issue of Keselowski for a minute ... this is who Kyle Busch is, at least on the race track. To be fair, NASCAR has been in desperate need for flashy personalities for years, particularly following the death of Dale Earnhardt. Busch gives us that -- he's immensely talented, yet his attitude, unique that it is, rubs a lot of fans and competitors the wrong way.

Love him or hate him, Busch is the sort of driver you have to watch, because you never know what you're going to see. He might dominate a race and win going away, or he might put himself in the fence. He might even make a mistake in the car, then turn around and blame someone else and spin him out.

You just never know, which is part of Busch's appeal.

The talent is indisputable -- when Kurt Busch won his only Sprint Cup title in 2004, he warned everyone that he had a younger brother who was even better than him. The attitude is what polarizes everyone (though this Richmond incident in 2008 didn't help matters). Some fans love Busch's style, but most don't.

The reaction to Keselowski's statement on Saturday is all the proof you need.

As for Keselowski ... for someone who has this reputation of being a rough and dirty driver, Keselowski sure is on the receiving end of intentional wrecks a lot. Keselowski is aggressive, sometimes too much so, but that aggression got him to where he is today, and it's a big reason Roger Penske hired him away from Rick Hendrick, even though Hendrick desperately wanted to keep him.

We've mentioned the probation, and there's thought that Keselowski hasn't retaliated yet because of that. It's a valid argument, but I think it goes deeper. Penske, Keselowski's car owner, strikes me as the sort of guy who doesn't tolerate race cars being used as weapons, so maybe he's had a conversation or two with Keselowski about how to handle his incidents with Edwards and now Busch.

But think about this: for all his aggression, Keselowski isn't the type to intentionally dump people (if you throw the Talladega incident in my face, you lose all credibility). Yeah, he'll bump and rub and make contact and put his car in places a lot of other drivers won't. But guess what? That landed him his ride with JR Motorsports. That landed him his first career Sprint Cup Series win at Talladega. That got him his ride with Penske, and it will more than likely land him the Nationwide Series championship this year.

Oh, and it landed him one of NASCAR's most iconic rides, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, next season.

Maybe that's what has Edwards, Busch and Denny Hamlin all ticked off at Keselowski; he's talented, he's aggressive and most importantly, he beats them. Most importantly, he won't back down. In 2008 and 2009, Keselowski was the only non-Cup driver who regularly raced with and beat the Cup drivers moonlighting in the Nationwide Series.

Trust me, the only way not to make veteran drivers mad at you is if they beat you. Keselowski beats these guys on a semi-regular basis, which upsets their mental sense of hierarchy.

All Keselowski has done is the same thing that he's been doing all along, which is what's allowed him to ascend the ranks of NASCAR. It's entirely conceivable for Keselowski to retire as a Sprint Cup Series champion, and he's not going to let rankled veterans of questionable maturity stand in his way.

And don't mistake Keselowski's reticence to retaliate for letting Busch and others walk all over them. Keselowski will have his revenge, in his own way and on his own terms.

Busch can win all the races and set all the records he wants. He certainly has the talent, and he may one day win the Sprint Cup. But he has a lot of maturing to do before that day comes, and no matter what anyone tells you, Busch is not, and will never be, anything like the late Dale Earnhardt.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I love NASCAR, have since I was a teenager and I watched Jeff Gordon win the inaugural Brickyard 400. I love the smell of burnt rubber and racing fuel, and I still get chills every time the engines fire. I love the competition, I love the speed, I love the action. I always have since that fateful day, and I always will.

It would take an awful lot to get me to abandon this sport. Even given that, I realize the sport is not perfect. There are some things I would like to see done to make the sport more exciting. I would like to see tweaks in the points system, I would like to change up the schedules and I would like to continue tweaking on the race cars.

Below are things I would do if I were the CEO & Chairman of NASCAR.

-The race winner will receive 200 points. The second-place finisher will receive 175 points, and the points awarded will decrease by five for each subsequent position through 30th. Any driver who finishes 31st or worse will not receive points -- in part to cut down on drivers who are involved in a wreck, spend 50 laps in the garage and come back to ride around and get in the way in the interest of a few more points. It would also make it hard for drivers who record DNFs to record points (though prize money will not be affected).

-The 5-point bonus for leading a lap will be done away with (honestly, should a guy who leads one lap all day because he stayed out under caution receive bonus points?). Bonus points will be awarded for: leading the most laps (5), leading at halfway (5), leading 100 laps (5), leading 200 laps (5) and winning the pole (10).

EXAMPLE: Jimmie Johnson wins the pole at Dover, giving him 10 bonus points. He goes on to lead the most laps -- 274 -- en route to winning the race, though he does not lead at halfway. Johnson will get 5 points for leading the most laps, 5 points for leading 100 laps and 5 points for leading 200 laps, giving him 15 more bonus points. For the weekend, Johnson gets 25 bonus points, on top of the 200 points he gets for winning the race. Johnson's efforts net him 225 total points.

-Ideally, these changes to the points system will reward both winning and consistency. Not awarding points to drivers who finish 31st or worse helps reward consistency, while the 25-point difference between first and second place accentuates the value of winning. Bonus points for lap-leading and pole-winning serve as further incentives for drivers to go all-out through the entire weekend.

-The Top 35 qualifying rule in the Sprint Cup Series (Top 30 for the Nationwide Series) will be eliminated; in both series, the 36 fastest times will qualify, and there will be six slots for provisionals. Every team will receive five provisionals for the season, and the past champions' provisional will be available on an unlimited basis for the most recent champion who does not qualify. In the Camping World Truck Series, the top 35 speeds will qualify, with the 36th spot going to the past champions' provisional. If the provisional is not needed, the top 36 speeds will qualify.

-With the Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang establishing a presence in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR will require GM and Chevrolet to find a way to bring the Chevrolet Camaro into the series to replace the Impala. The Nationwide Series will become a pony car series, and the Impala is not a race car (hell, my grandparents have one). Neither is the Toyota Camry; if Toyota wants to continue competing in the Nationwide Series, it will have to introduce a pony car that will be built on American soil and made available to the public.

-Pony cars will eventually be introduced to the Sprint Cup Series as well, because American motorsports are based on the thrill of speed and exhilaration -- and let's face it, the Impala, Camry and Fusion do not inspire such feelings. The Sprint Cup Series car will also see a series of design changes, including a re-design of the front splitter. The new design will remove the splitter braces and curve the edges of the splitter, so they can't cut down tires. The re-designs will also look to blend the safety features of the current-generation car with the aesthetics of the last generation -- while also re-introducing brand identity to the manufacturers.

-The vehicles in the Camping World Truck Series will remain largely unchanged, though it will also see a new design to the front splitter. Much like the Sprint Cup Series car, the Camping World Trucks will remove the splitter braces and see a more rounded edge to the splitters.

-I don't necessarily hate the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but I will do away with it. All three series will run the length of their respective schedules, and the driver who has the most points at the end of the season will be the champion. However, full-time Sprint Cup drivers who run Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races will not receive points in those series.

-The Nationwide Series will have more standalone races in an attempt to take the series focus away from moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers and put it back on the young up-and-comers an driver development. Full-time Sprint Cup drivers who are in the top 35 in Sprint Cup points will be allowed to run no more than 14 Nationwide Series races in a season -- half the schedule. This limitation will also apply to Sprint Cup drivers in the Camping World Truck Series.

-Both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series schedules will be cut; the Sprint Cup schedule will be reduced from 36 points-paying races to 30, with both exhibition races remaining in place. The Nationwide Series schedule will be reduced from 35 races to 28. This will be accomplished in part by taking away dates from tracks with two dates, as well as awarding races to tracks not currently on the schedule. The Camping World Truck Series schedule will remain 25 races.

-Below are the three national touring schedules I would propose. It will be listed in Sprint Cup/Nationwide/Camping World Truck Series format, with OFF denoting an off weekend for the series. NOTE: I realize I listed tracks that NASCAR no longer runs in, but seeing as how this is entirely hypothetical, I went with it.

Budweiser Shootout at Daytona (exhibition race)/OFF/OFF
Las Vegas/Atlanta/Rockingham
Sprint All-Star Challenge at Charlotte (exhibition race)/OFF/Texas
Pocono/Milwaukee Mile/Michigan
New Hampshire/New Hampshire/OFF
Michigan/Road America/Iowa
Indianapolis/ORP/New Hampshire
Watkins Glen/Watkins Glen/Watkins Glen
Darlington/Gateway/Las Vegas
Phoenix/Nashville/North Wilkesboro

So there you have it, my ideas for "fixing" NASCAR. I'm sure some of you will love all these ideas, while others will likely hate everything I've written above. But please, feel free to leave your comments below.

Good Weekend for Point Leaders

This past weekend in NASCAR was a good one for the guys atop their respective point standings in the three national touring series -- it marked just the sixth time in history that all three point leaders won races in their respective divisions in the same season -- since 1995, when the Camping World Truck Series came into being.

Todd Bodine, who holds a 231-point lead over Aric Almirola in the Camping World Truck Series, took the Too Tough To Tame 200 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night for his third win of the season.

Brad Keselowski defended his 2009 Nationwide Series win at Michigan International Speedway, taking the Carfax 250 in dominant fashion for his fourth win of the year -- extending his points lead over Carl Edwards to 347 points in the process. His worst finish of the season is 21st, when Keselowski ran out of fuel late in Chicagoland.

And of course, Kevin Harvick took the Carfax 400 at Michigan on Sunday for his third win of the season. Harvick, who now has 30 bonus points for when the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts, holds a 293-point lead over Jeff Gordon.

This is the latest in a season that all three point leaders have won in the same weekend.

All three drivers showed this past weekend why they're the points leaders in their respective series. Bodine has been consistent throughout the season, recording 12 top-10s and 11 top-5s in 15 starts, while Keselowski is close to giving car owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship thanks to four wins, 17 top-5s and 20 top-10s in 23 starts.

Harvick has been by far the most impressive of the bunch, given how he struggled in 2009. In 23 starts this season, Harvick has 11 top-5s and 16 top-10s.

Harvick's win at Michigan was his first at a non-restrictor plate track since Phoenix in 2006, and Harvick served notice that he will be a title threat come Chase time, even if others want to make Denny Hamlin or four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson the favorite.

Bodine and Keselowski are likely to win their titles going away, barring something out of the ordinary, and Harvick would be cruising to his first title as well were it not for the Chase. But that doesn't make what this trio has accomplished -- both throughout the season and this past weekend -- any less impressive.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Changes to 2011 Chase Coming reported on Friday that Auto Club Speedway (sometimes referred to as Fontana) will lose one of its Sprint Cup Series dates for the 2011 season. This is not surprising; there's been speculation throughout the season that Fontana would lose a date -- probably in order to give Kansas Speedway a second date -- but it was widely assumed Fontana would lose its February date, not its Chase race.

But according to SPEED's report, Fontana will not be part of the 2011 Chase. Which begs the question ... who gets Fontana's second date? With some arranging, it's still possible that Kansas gets that date, but it won't be a straight swap, because Kansas is already in the Chase.

The network has also reported this week that the 2011 Chase will begin at Chicagoland Speedway, not New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which has opened the Chase every year since its 2004 inception. Instead, New Hampshire will become the second Chase race, and it's widely believed that Fontana losing its Chase race spares Dover's Chase date.

Without any other knowledge at this point, there's no telling what next season's Cup schedule will look like. That Atlanta Motor Speedway is losing a date to Kentucky Motor Speedway is not unexpected, nor is the fact that Fontana is losing a date. NASCAR CEO Brian France promised before the Brickyard 400 a couple weeks back that changes were coming to both the Chase and the schedule, but right now almost everything is speculation.

Sources tell SPEED that the 2011 Cup schedule will be released on Aug. 18.

Though SPEED's Thursday report mentioned the possibility of Martinsville Speedway losing a race (which will surely infuriate traditional fans, much like losing Rockingham and one of Darlington's dates did), there hasn't been a whole lot of rumbling about that move. Almost all the speculation this season has focused on Fontana, and rightly so -- from a racing standpoint, the track is stale, and the pathetic attendance figures have made a move almost inevitable.

Meanwhile, Martinsville has held strong from an attendance standpoint, despite its smaller grandstands and the fact that almost every track is seeing empty seats these days. If I had to guess I'd say Martinsville keeps both of its dates in 2011.

Frankly, I'm glad Fontana is losing a date -- if I had my way, we wouldn't go there at all. I understand NASCAR wants to court the southern California market, but it's clear they don't care for it. Unless you were to move the race to nearby Irwindale Speedway, which wouldn't be a bad move.

The 2011 Sprint Cup schedule will look a lot different than in recent years -- but that might not be such a bad thing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Report: Atlanta to Lose Cup Race

According to sources, Atlanta Motor Speedway will only have one Sprint Cup race as of 2011 -- its Labor Day race that serves as the second-to-last race before the Chase. Word has it that Bruton Smith, who owns Atlanta as part of his Speedway Motorsports, Inc. company, plans to take one of Atlanta's dates and give it to the recently-purchased Kentucky Speedway.

Nothing is official, and NASCAR isn't expected to release the 2011 schedule until next month, but the report isn't entirely unexpected; Smith made it clear the moment he bought Kentucky that he wanted to bring a Cup race to the track, and Atlanta has suffered attendance woes for years -- even before the recession hit.

Rows upon rows of seats near the start-finish line have been empty for several years at Atlanta. It's one thing for a track to not sell seats in Turn 3 or Turn 4, but on the frontstretch, near the start-finish line?

That looks good for no one.

Expect some NASCAR traditionalists to criticize the move and decry the sport further distancing itself from its southern roots, but the truth is more complicated. Much like the decision to leave Rockingham and take away Darlington's fall date, the move to take a race away from Atlanta amounts to ticket sales. Atlanta has struggled to sell seats for years -- like Rockingham and Darlington before it -- and the move was needed.

Attendance is down almost everywhere, that's true. But Atlanta's troubles pre-date the recession, much like Fontana's. Expect an announcement soon that Auto Club Speedway will lose one of its dates, likely going to Kansas Speedway -- a track that does not have horrible attendance problems.

Atlanta is a great track, one that has a lot of history in NASCAR. It's also considered the sport's fastest, and the racing is often pretty solid. But the ample number of empty seats proved to be the track's undoing, and in Kentucky, the Cup Series is getting a track that enjoys a good amount of support; fans have welcomed the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series and the IndyCar Series to Kentucky with open arms.

So why wouldn't they do the same for a Cup race?

Darlington had rebounded nicely since being reduced to only having one race a season. Ticket sales have been up, the Southern 500 returned and that stop on the schedule has become a crown jewel again. Other tracks have thrived on the Cup Series schedule with just one date, so there's no reason Atlanta can't do the same -- especially since it will likely keep its Labor Day slot.

But the fact remains: had Atlanta's attendance been better the past decade, it wouldn't be losing a race.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sadler's Wreck Highlights Problems

NASCAR had made tremendous strides in safety since 2001, when Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Tracks have upgraded safety features such as energy-absorbing walls, while drivers find themselves in safer cars with safer custom-built seats and head-and-neck restraints that have undoubtedly averted the tragic consequences of many a horrific crash.

Say what you want about the current generation car in the Sprint Cup Series, it's incredibly safe. In fact, it might be the only reason Elliott Sadler is still with us after the hit he took Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

ESPN didn't get a really good look at the wreck, but here's video of what the network did catch:

That Sadler walked away from the wreck, even though the engine came clear out of the car, is a testament to the safety of the car and the HANS device. The crush panels in front of the car absorbed much of the energy that would've gone to Sadler otherwise, and the six-point harness and HANS device kept Sadler largely in place even as his car bounced off the guardrail and spun back onto the track.

However, the lack of safety upgrades at Pocono was made glaringly evident for the second straight race. Kasey Kahne nearly spun over the fence along the Long Pond straightaway in the June race, resulting in a call for Pocono to install catchfencing along the outside wall -- even though there are no grandstands back there.

After Sadler's wreck, there's calling for SAFER barriers to be installed along the inside of that straightaway and for the grass to be paved over. I agree that these changes need to be made, and NASCAR must make sure they happen.

The track has already promised these changes would be made in time for next season's races, but if I'm NASCAR, I take it a step further than that. If I'm Brian France, I tell track officials that if these changes are not made, the Sprint Cup Series (and the Camping World Truck Series, which made its debut at the track on Saturday) will not be back.

Simple as that. Make the necessary safety changes, or the show stops. NASCAR cannot allow its greatest asset -- its drivers -- be put needlessly in harm's way like that. Why have all these safety innovations and not use them?

Pocono has also talked of bringing the IndyCar Series back to the track. Can you imagine an IndyCar having the same impact Sadler did on Sunday? In that instance, we're not talking about a guy who walked away. We're talking about a guy being sent to the morgue.

Motorsports are dangerous; the only way to 100 percent guarantee safety is to not run these races at all. But NASCAR has done a great job of making things safer since Earnhardt's death. Tracks have also improved safety; after Jeff Gordon hit the inside wall hard at Las Vegas in 2008, the track changed the wall configuration.

Pocono needs to do the same. Add the catchfence, add the SAFER barriers. If the track cannot do this, then it doesn't deserve to host NASCAR races.

At all.