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Friday 5: Schedule change part of NASCAR’s broader makeover

Kyle Busch rallied while Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell suffered tough setbacks in Richmond and will have to race for their playoff lives as the scene shifts to Bristol for the final race of the Round of 16.

NASCAR’s transformation of the Cup schedule shows a sport in motion, willing to change, seeking new audiences and continuing to reimagine itself as it looks to 2022 and beyond.

New markets are a priority. Short tracks are in demand. Risks are encouraged.

When next year arrives, nearly a quarter of the Cup schedule will have changed since 2019. That includes a race on dirt, one in a football stadium and another at a track previously abandoned by NASCAR.

Times change. Doing the same thing becomes stale. The sport needed a jolt. First, it was the playoff system. Then, it was the car. Now, it’s the schedule.

“I think our sport is much more open-minded to change,” former champion Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports. “It’s not ‘We’ve gone here, we’ve got to keep going here.’ It’s more ‘We’re going to go here because it’s better for the sport. It’s interesting. It’s exciting.Whatever that scenario is, it’s different.’

“In today’s world, people just like new and different, and you have to keep it mixed up and keep it fresh.”

Change in the sport has become nearly constant to the new generation of Cup drivers.

“It’s no big deal for me,” William Byron said of next year’s schedule alterations.

The 23-year-old, who entered Cup in 2018, has seen new events on the schedule each year except one.

More new races are likely on the way.

Speedway Motorsports continues its bid to operate Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and return Cup racing to the 0.596-mile track as early as 2023.

Auto Club Speedway has plans to go from a 2-mile track to a half-mile facility.

There remains interest in a street course race in Chicago, but many factors, including politics, will determine if that event happens or takes place only on iRacing. NASCAR also has interest in the New York City region.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan this week that the next step for the series is “continuing to keep the schedule fresh and entering some of these new markets.”

NASCAR schedule questions stadium

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12: A drone aerial view shows the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at Exposition Park as Los Angeles County allows more businesses and facilities to reopen today, despite rising COVID-19 infections and deaths on June 12, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. After reporting the countys largest single-day jump in coronavirus cases, health officials are warning that the countys transmission rate of the disease could overwhelm intensive-care units in the next two to four weeks if the increase isn’t reversed. Newly allowed reopenings include gyms and fitness facilities, spectator-free sports venues, day camps, museums, galleries, zoos, aquariums, campgrounds, RV parks, outdoor recreational areas including swimming pools, music, film and television production and hotels for leisure travel. The county’s death toll is currently more than 2,800 with the total number of cases nearing 69,000. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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The NASCAR Clash next February puts a Cup race near downtown Los Angeles a week before the city hosts the Super Bowl.

Next year’s Cup debut at World Wide Technology Raceway, located a few miles from St. Louis, puts the series in the nation’s 23rd largest TV market, according to the Nielsen Designated Market Area list. Indianapolis, Nashville and Kansas City are among cities that rank behind St. Louis.

NASCAR’s debut at Circuit of the Americas this year moved a Cup race to Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Fans have responded to NASCAR’s recent changes to the schedule.

Circuit of the Americas had a large crowd despite rain during the Cup race. Nashville Superspeedway sold out about 38,000 seats for the Cup race. Road America saw some of its largest crowds in years with the Xfinity-Cup doubleheader during the July 4 weekend.

There was a time NASCAR was not as daring with the schedule, though. From 2002-17, only one track was added to the Cup schedule - Kentucky Speedway in 2011. Its last Cup race was 2019.

NASCAR’s focus then was on how it determined a champion instead of adding to the schedule. The Chase debuted in 2004 with 10 title contenders. The field expanded to 12 in 2007. The format was tweaked in 2011.

The playoff format was unveiled in 2014 with 16 drivers, eliminations and one race determining the champion. Stage racing and playoff points were introduced in 2017.

It wasn’t until the format came together that NASCAR focused on the schedule. In 2018, Chicagoland and New Hampshire were moved out of the playoffs for Las Vegas and Richmond. The Charlotte Roval debuted that season.

The Cup championship weekend moved from Homestead to Phoenix in 2020. Next year will mark the third consecutive year Phoenix has hosted the title weekend.

“My opinion is that the championship race should never be at the same racetrack two years in a row,” Harvick said. “There should be a rotation.

“The (10 playoff) races should never look the same. Should always be mixed up as you go from year to year because it keeps it fresh, it keeps it interesting, it keeps everybody guessing.”

That’s just among the many changes in recent years to the schedule.

Races on the 2019 schedule that are not on the 2022 schedule:

  • The Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona
  • The Bristol spring race (on concrete)
  • The Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte
  • Chicagoland Speedway
  • Kentucky Speedway
  • A Pocono race
  • A Michigan race
  • A Dover race
  • The oval at Indianapolis
  • A second points race at Texas

In place of those races on the 2022 schedule are:

  • The NASCAR Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum
  • The Bristol Dirt race
  • The NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas
  • World Wide Technology Raceway
  • Circuit of the Americas
  • Nashville Superspeedway
  • Road America
  • A second race at Atlanta
  • The road course at Indianapolis
  • A second race at Darlington
NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400

LEBANON, TENNESSEE - JUNE 20: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Pedigree Toyota, lead the field to start the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 20, 2021 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Among the changes next year will be the Bristol Dirt race moving to Easter night. NASCAR last raced on Easter in 1989 due to weather.
Once NASCAR was comfortable scheduling a Cup race on Mother’s Day, it made it easier to look at racing on Easter.

“You think about the amount of other sports that play on Thanksgiving or a number of different holidays,” Kennedy said. “At the end of the day, we’re kind of no exception. Race on Mother’s Day, race on Presidents Day weekend and on Easter Sunday, too, so I think it’ll be exciting and interesting to see how it performs.

The sport also is looking at other options for races, including some sites outside the U.S.

“I think the (NASCAR Clash at the) L.A. Coliseum and a concept like this brings about the ability to go to different markets,” Kennedy said. “And in particular as we think about international markets as well. There’s a ton of soccer stadiums across the world, and being able to duplicate this in other markets, I think really turns this into a proof of concept as well.”

Another change with the schedule is the move away from Saturday night races, traditionally a weak TV viewing night.

The 2022 schedule has three Saturday night races - Martinsville on April 9, the regular-season finale Aug. 27 at Daytona and the Bristol Night Race on Sept. 17.

There were seven Saturday night races on the 2019 schedule. Among those that have moved to Sunday include the All-Star Race and the Darlington Cup race that went from the night before Mother’s Day to running on that day.

One change Harvick would like to see in the coming years is with the All-Star Race.

“I still believe the All-Star Race is underutilized in what we could use it for racing in general,” he said. “When you look at SRX (the summer short track series started by Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham) and you look at the racetracks that they went to and you see the reaction to that particular series and the things that they did on short tracks, I think the All-Star Race would be a great way to re-energize the short track community.”

Going to a local short track not only could provide energy but also aid the grassroots community, Harvick said. The event could help that particular track generate enough income to add enhancements for fans and competitors. That way, the event would leave something behind when it heads to another track.

“You go to markets,” Harvick said, “you’re going to fill the place up and be able to help rebuild that short track program that we really haven’t had an opportunity to do in a number of years since (former series sponsor) Winston left, because of the fact there’s not just been an influx of money and attention that goes with it like Winston put on the short track system.”

2. Turnaround

Kurt Busch enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) holding the last transfer spot via a tiebreaker over Alex Bowman.

Last year, Busch entered the Bristol cutoff race four points above the cutline. He advanced.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race

BRISTOL, TN - AUGUST 18: Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 18, 2018 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Busch has six career Cup wins at Bristol, making this an optimal track to be a cutoff event for him. But Bristol wasn’t always a good place for him. He finished 42nd in his first Cup race there in March 2001.

“My first race there, I wrecked like four or five different times, ran out of radiators and they didn’t even have a tunnel to walk out of back then,” Busch told NBC Sports. “My sponsor at the time, Sharpie, sponsored the night race and I’m like ‘Oh boy, I better figure this place out pretty quick.’

“It just clicked. When (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig and I started working together, he had these cool Mark Martin setups. I just loved hanging it out and ripping it around there, and it’s turned out to be one of my favorite tracks throughout my career.”

Busch won in his third career Cup start at Bristol in March 2002. That started a streak of four wins in the next five races there. His most recent win at Bristol was August 2018.

“I love Bristol,” he said. “I love the lap times there, cranking out 15-second lap times in a little bullring like that and then the atmosphere there is great.”

3. Early surge

Denny Hamlin’s win at Darlington moved him into the next round but overlooked is how many playoff points he’s scored in the first two playoff races.

NASCAR Power Rankings

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 05: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Offerpad Toyota, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 05, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Hamlin has won three of four stages. Added to his win (worth five playoff points), he’s scored eight playoff points in the last two races.

That’s important because playoff points likely will matter in who advances in the following rounds, particularly the championship round.

Hamlin has 23 playoff points entering the Bristol race. Every driver who reached the championship race via points had at least 26 playoff points.

Here’s a look at how many playoff points each driver has entering Bristol:

53 - Kyle Larson

29 - Martin Truex Jr.

24 - Ryan Blaney

23 - Denny Hamlin

22 - Kyle Busch

21 - Chase Elliott

15 - Alex Bowman

14 - William Byron

13 - Joey Logano

8 - Brad Keselowski

8 - Kurt Busch

5 - Christopher Bell

5 - Aric Almirola

5 - Michael McDowell

3 - Tyler Reddick

2 - Kevin Harvick

4. Xfinity showdown

Tonight’s Xfinity race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) marks the end of the regular season. Three playoff spots remain.

Jeremy Clements (+74), Brandon Jones (+67) and Riley Herbst (+66) hold the final three spots.

Also on the line is the regular season crown. Austin Cindric leads AJ Allmendinger by five points.

Cindric had an 82-point lead on Allmendinger after winning on the Indianapolis road course last month. Since then, Allmendinger won at Michigan, finished second at Daytona, placed 20th at Darlington and was 18th at Richmond.

Allmendinger has been helped by Cindric’s troubles. Cindric was 37th at Michigan after an incident, finished 39th at Daytona because of a crash, was third at Darlington and placed 16th at Richmond.

“It’s a pretty fluid weekend for us,” Cindric said. “It’s the difference of five playoff points. It’s been a tough month in August, almost losing 100 points in two races. That really derailed our hopes, or at least our comfort, for that.

“I would say in the Xfinity Series, five points, it’s not that it’s harder to make up than in the Cup Series, but the amount of cars that gain stage points - realistically, anybody you’re gonna be racing against in the Xfinity Series gains stage points, so your gains are cut in half.

“We really have to have a standout day under normal circumstances for us to be able to clinch this or at least get it to where it’s tied.”

Said AJ Allmendinger this week on MotorMouths: “The last couple of weeks, we’ve had really fast race cars. We haven’t quite executed the way we needed to. We could have had a bigger points lead.”

5. Young talent

Among the athletes who are represented by Kevin Harvick Inc. are a pair of teenagers.

One is a racer. The other is a bull rider.

Nicholas Jackson won the 2020 Jr. bull riding championship in his age group. While KHI represents drivers, UFC fighters and golfers, a 13-year-old bull rider was new.

“He has huge potential,” Harvick told NBC Sports about Jackson. “We’ve helped take pressure off the family from a financial standpoint to focus on making him the best human being and focus on also being able to be great at what he does.”

The racer is Brent Crews, a 13-year-old, who ranks second in the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget standings.

“He’s one of those that is just a diamond in the rough that is going to have great potential to race whatever he wants to race,” Harvick said of Crews. “He’s already raced and won all over the world. You see him win in the POWRi midgets this year.

“The hardest part with Brent is just trying to keep up with his potential and evolution and progression through his career because he learns so fast and accomplishes things so fast that you have to figure out what’s next pretty quick.”

KHI added Jackson, Crews and Keelan Harvick (Kevin Harvick’s son) as part of the company’s Youth Sports Division in February.

“We always pride ourselves on being small,” Kevin Harvick said. “I think that’s one thing that allows us to kind of tailor the program to each athlete, learn each sanctioning body in different sports because they all are different, but they all teach us something about that we can do better.

“From the sponsor side of things, I think it’s important to have assets that are all over the board just because of the fact everybody has customers that may not like racing, they may not like UFC, they may not like golf, bull riding. Surely we have something that they may like across the board that allows them to entertain people outside of just racing.”

That’s been a factor for Harvick who has built relationships with many companies throughout his career.

Now, he’s partnering with Xfinity, promoting the Xfinity Rewards program for Xfinity customers. Among the rewards are a sweepstakes for the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway and another for the NASCAR championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

Also, Xfinity customers can receive access to NASCAR Scanner, allowing them to listen to in-car audio during races.

“I think that’s what a lot of people, especially people who are new to our sport don’t understand, all the information you can get access to in order to make that race more inserting to you and you can kind of tailor the race to how you want to watch it,” Harvick said of the NASCAR Scanner.

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