CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After two decades of the same left turns at the same tracks over and over again, NASCAR finally upended its stagnant calendar with a 2021 Cup Series schedule that is radical in its renovation.
Three new venues. A dirt race for the first time in more than 50 years. And a whopping six road courses for the top-tier circuit in an overhaul unveiled Wednesday that dumped some of the cookie-cutter oval tracks right off the list.
It is a true shakeup after a lack of imagination created the most predictable schedule in sports, one that favored new speedways — 1.5-mile ovals that not only all looked the same, but raced the same, too. Not since Indianapolis Motor Speedway was added in 1994 had a Cup Series race been awarded to a track that was not part of an ownership group for an active speedway.
NASCAR set aside all the old ways of doing business.
"We said back in 2019 (that in) 2021, you were going to see some really bold changes from NASCAR," said Steve O'Donnell, the organization's executive vice president. "We believe we've delivered on that. We are excited for our fans, it's a historic schedule, the most changes since 1969."
NASCAR will visit three new venues: Road America in rural Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, which will host the Cup Series for the first time since 1956; the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas; and Nashville Superspeedway, a visit that was previously announced.
Another Tennessee track that is an established part of the series, Bristol Motor Speedway, will still have two races next year. However, for the spring race, Bristoll will fill its 0.533-mile concrete bullring with soil for the first Cup Series race on a dirt track since Richard Petty won at State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh in 1970.
Also, Speedway Motorsports gave its Kentucky Speedway date to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which wants two races as it hopes to develop the grounds around the facility into an entertainment complex. Kentucky had hosted a Cup Series race siince 2011, but the racing was often boring and now the facility will be repurposed.
Next year's schedule was the first time NASCAR could make big changes since 2016, when it entered into unprecedented five-year sanctioning agreements with race promoters. That meant no changes, even as fans begged for something new as the racing often settled into the monotonous.
The best NASCAR could do was wait for the contracts to expire.
Making the changes meant walking away from Chicagoland Speedway, owned by NASCAR and once a shining example of racing's expansion into major markets a generation ago. The track in suburban Joliet was nothing special, and its land became more valuable than its spot on the Cup Series calendar.
Also closed was Kentucky, which began its quest for a Cup Series race through a federal lawsuit filed against NASCAR. Michigan and Dover Raceway in Delaware will go from two Cup Series races a year to one.
Each change required a concession from either NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports, the two largest track operators in the United States. Both companies are now privately owned and hold a monopoly on coveted race dates. But both were willing to take risks, five something to get something and work together to create a modernized NASCAR.
This year the COVID-19 pandemic gave NASCAR an early window to experiment with new ideas, some of which stuck. Midweek races were tried when racing resumed after a 10-week shutdown, but the television numbers weren't good enough to repeat the experiment in 2021. The cost-saving one-day shows of no practice and qualifying are slated for 28 weekends next year, O'Donnell said.
It was an extraordinary effort by NASCAR, which still has six weeks remaining in a 38-race interrupted season that runs from February into November.
NASCAR next season will race on six road course races, up from three on the original 2020 schedule. Besides Road America and Circuit of the Americas, the Cup Series will also race for the first time on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The series already competes at Sonoma Raceway in California, Watkins Glen in New York and the Roval — combination road and oval — at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
Roger Penske continued big changes in his first year as owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In July, IMS hosted the first shared weekend between IndyCar and NASCAR, and NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity Series gave the road course the first race for a stock car. Next year, NASCAR and IndyCar will again be on the same weekend in August and the Cup cars will also race the road course.
NASCAR for 27 races used the big 2.5 mile-oval at Indy, but the race was never the thriller Indy and NASCAR imagined, especially for a race that is supposed to a NASCAR "crown jewel." Moving to the road course give Indy and NASCAR something new on what could become a blockbuster weekend.
Speedway Motorsports went big in what it was willing to try in rebuilding the schedule. It took its spring race at Texas Motor Speedway and moved it to COTA, then took the All-Star Race to TMS.
The All-Star event is another crown jewel that has become another ho-hum race on an intermediate track. It started at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1985 and ran there every year but one before moving this year to Bristol because of the pandemic. The Texas moves are an all-in gamble for Marcus Smith, who is making his own mark on the company started by his father.
"We had a lot of different things on our list," Smith said. "I know it's a big risk. But, you know, my dad is a risk taker, I am a risk taker, racing by nature is a risky sport."
Dover Raceway and Michigan International Speedway both lost one of their two dates. One of Dover's had been previously announced earmarked for Nashville, and NASCAR moved one of Michigan's race dates to Darlington Raceway. The South Carolina track successfully hosted NASCAR's return during the pandemic on short notice, held three Cup Series races for the first time in history, and fans and drivers love the place.
NASCAR Cup Series 2021 Schedule
Feb. 14 — Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Feb. 21 — Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead, Fla.
Feb. 28 — Auto Club Speedway, Fontana, Calif.
March 7 — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
March 14 — Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Ariz.
March 21 — Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga.
March 28 — Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway
April 10 — Martinsville (Va.) Speedway
April 18 — Richmond (Va.) Raceway
April 25 — Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway
May 2 — Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kan.
May 9 — Darlington (S.C.) Raceway
May 16 — Dover (Del.) International Speedway
May 23 — Circuit of The Americas, Austin, Texas
May 30 — Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C.
June 6 — Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway
June 13 — NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth
June 20 — Nashville Superspeedway
June 26 — Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.
June 27 — Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.
July 4 — Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 11 — Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga.
July 18 — New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon
Aug. 8 — Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International
Aug. 15 — Indianapolis Motor Speedway (road course)
Aug. 22 — Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich.
Aug. 28 — Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Sept. 5 — Darlington (S.C.) Raceway
Sept. 11 — Richmond (Va.) Raceway
Sept. 18 — Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway
Sept. 26 — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Oct. 3 — Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway
Oct. 10 — Charlotte Motor Speedway (roval course)
Oct. 17 — Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth
Oct. 24 — Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kan.
Oct. 31 — Martinsville (Va.) Speedway
Nov. 7 — Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Ariz.