Changes to Cup schedule fail to impress

NASCAR chairman Brian France promised big changes to the 2011 Sprint Cup Series schedule, and the first one was rolled out Monday when Chicagoland Speedway was picked to open next year’s Chase for the championship.

We already knew Kansas Speedway asked for a second Cup race, and Kentucky Speedway again requested it be added to the schedule. Both of those announcements are coming Tuesday.

So what’s left? Apparently not much.

Based on a tentative Nationwide Series schedule that NASCAR distributed to teams last week and somehow found its way into my hands, I’ve been able to piece together much of the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule. And unless my calculations are wrong, the shift of the Chase opener from New Hampshire to Chicago is the only eye-popper.

All that hype for nothing.

What happened to changing up the Chase tracks? Throwing a road course into the mix? Moving the finale to Las Vegas? Testing out a weeknight Cup race?

None of that’s happening, and that’s a shame.

2011 Sprint Cup schedule?

Here’s how Jenna Fryer believes the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule will look like when it is eventually announced:

Feb. 20: Daytona
Feb. 27: Phoenix
March 6: Las Vegas
March 13: Off
March 20: Bristol
March 27: California
April 3: Martinsville
April 9: Texas
April 17: Talladega
April 24: Off
April 30: Richmond
May 7: Darlington
May 15: Dover
May 21: All-star Race
May 29: Charlotte
June 5: Kansas
June 12: Pocono
June 19: Michigan
June 26: Infineon
July 2: Daytona
July 9: Kentucky
July 17: New Hampshire
July 24: Off
July 31: Indianapolis
Aug 7: Pocono
Aug 14: Watkins Glen
Aug 21: Michigan
Aug 27: Bristol
Sept. 4: Atlanta
Sept. 10: Richmond
Sept. 18: Chicagoland
Sept. 25: New Hampshire
Oct. 2: Dover
Oct. 9: Kansas
Oct. 15: Charlotte
Oct. 23: Talladega
Oct. 30: Martinsville
Nov. 6: Texas
Nov. 13: Phoenix
Nov. 20: Homestead-Miami

NASCAR had a very real opportunity to shake things up and try new things, and based on talk that came directly from the powers that be, it sure sounded like there was the potential for significant shifts in the schedule.

“There will be some changes as they look now,” France said two weeks ago in Indianapolis. “That could not quite materialize, but I sense it will and we’ll have some pretty impactful changes to the schedule that I think will be good for NASCAR fans.”

I for sure envisioned a shakeup to the Chase tracks, but as it stands now, save for the Chicagoland addition, the schedule will look almost identical to how it’s been since the 2004 inception.

Because the Nationwide schedule being circulated has the final three races of the season scheduled for Texas, Phoenix and then Homestead, it’s fair to infer that’s how the Cup season will also conclude next year.

So, here’s how the Chase looks for 2011:

Sept. 18: Chicago
Sept. 25: New Hampshire
Oct. 2: Dover
Oct. 9: Kansas
Oct. 15: Charlotte
Oct. 23: Martinsville
Oct. 30: Talladega
Nov. 6: Texas
Nov. 13: Phoenix
Nov. 20: Homestead-Miami

Moving Chicago into the Chase and California out means California has to land elsewhere, and my guess is it will be March 27 (the Nationwide schedule has California down for March 26). That’s a much better date for California, which did well when it had just one race a year.

California’s spring date being pushed back on the schedule means Phoenix is sliding into the second spot of the season, so that’s something new. And because Texas’ Nationwide race is down for Friday, April 8, it looks like that Cup race will be a Saturday night show to avoid competing against the final round of the Masters.

Phoenix should do well as the second race of the season – and hopefully those extra laps that were added in April will go away – and Texas under the lights is a positive change.

However, Chicagoland to start the Chase stumps me. I wouldn’t mind it so much if it was a Saturday night race. But track president Craig Rust said television partners were consulted and the Sunday afternoon slot was decided to be better the option.

That’s going to be a hard sell, I fear, both for television and ticket sales. As is, NASCAR struggles against the NFL, and it doesn’t really matter how great the track may be, the location of a race isn’t going to change who does and does not tune into a NASCAR race at the same time as an early-season NFL game.

Then comes the issue of marketing ticket sales locally, and last time I checked Chicagoans loved their Bears. Who are Chicagoland officials going to sell tickets to, since much of the state is going to be following the Bears that day?

NASCAR likes the idea of opening in Chicago in front of its large media audience, but from what I’ve heard, the track wasn’t exactly a back-page headliner during its July races, which weren’t competing against the NFL and potential baseball pennant races.

I will always be of the opinion that the Chase should open on a Saturday night at Richmond. I also maintain that Darlington Raceway and a road course should both be in the Chase. I am a strong supporter of closing the season in Las Vegas, with the championship banquets following in the two days after the finale.

I had no real belief that NASCAR would take my suggestions, and series officials have dismissed my Darlington push because they don’t feel like the area or venue is championship-worthy. (Um, hello, Martinsville?) Las Vegas doesn’t have a fair chance to score the finale because it’s owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., the rival to the France-family operated International Speedway Corp.

But NASCAR didn’t have to take my suggestions. They could have done anything they wanted with the schedule, indicated that they would, and now ultimately aren’t doing very much with it at all aside from adding races at Kansas and Kentucky and moving Chicagoland into the Chase.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m feeling a little letdown.

Jenna Fryer covers NASCAR for The Associated Press and is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow her on Twitter. Send Jenna a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 9, 2010