NASCAR Cup Series

Road courses, dirt race, date shuffle dominate 2021 NASCAR Cup schedule

10 Mins read
Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is now official. On Wednesday, NASCAR revealed the premier series slate for next season, featuring major changes and brand-new dates at both new and returning tracks that put the sweeping revisions in 2020 to shame.

A whopping six road courses, unheard of in NASCAR’s modern era, will be part of the schedule. A dirt track race, the first of its kind at the Cup level since 1970, will also join the calendar.

“We developed the 2021 schedule with one primary goal: Continue to take steps to create the most dynamic schedule possible for our fans,” NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell stated. “Extensive collaboration between NASCAR, the race tracks, race teams and our broadcast partners allowed NASCAR to create what promises to be an exciting 2021 schedule of races.”

Schedule changes

Although the Daytona 500 remains in its traditional slot as the season opener, NASCAR will stay in the state of Florida for the following week’s race. After one year with Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the second race of the season, Homestead-Miami Speedway assumes the slot.

A three-race West Coast Swing takes place after Homestead at Auto Club Speedway, which will enter its final seasons as a two-mile oval before reconfiguring into a short track, Las Vegas, and Phoenix Raceway.

Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway will return to having two races for the first time since 2010 and 2004, respectively. The latter oversaw the return of NASCAR racing in May after the season was paused due to COVID-19, and its legendary history and popularity have prompted the sanctioning body to reinstate the spring date, presumably as a 400-mile event.

“We’re beyond excited to deliver what our fans have been yearning for: a second weekend of NASCAR action in Atlanta once again,” Atlanta general manager Brandon Hutchison stated. “Folds of Honor and QuikTrip continue to be phenomenal partners for our spring weekend of racing and we’re thrilled to have Quaker State and Walmart on board this summer as we put together two weekends of entertainment and excitement for race fans.”

O’Donnell confirmed on Twitter that both Darlington races will utilise the low-downforce, high-horsepower package.

“We are grateful for NASCAR’s trust in the track Too Tough To Tame to continue to deliver one of the most competitive race experiences and loyal fan bases in the sport,” said Darlington head Kerry Tharp. “Thanks to Governor Henry McMaster and the state of South Carolina for their continued support as NASCAR was the first to bring live team sports back at Darlington in 2020. We look forward to hearing the roar of the engines twice as part of our traditional Mother’s Day and Labor Day weekends.”

The new dates will replace Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, both of which had been on the schedule since 2001 and 2011, respectively. The futures of both tracks are unknown, but their removals for 2021 and Auto Club’s redesign mark a paradigm shift in NASCAR’s track philosophy away from the “cookie cutter” boom of the 1990s. Chicagoland also lost its 2020 race as a result of the pandemic, while NASCAR had attempted to sell off its surrounding property before being struck down by city vote.

“With the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule unveiling, came the unfortunate news that Chicagoland Speedway will not be part of that lineup,” read a statement from track president Scott Paddock. “In addition, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Gander Trucks and ARCA will also not be returning to Chicagoland Speedway in 2021.

“The move away from NASCAR racing at Chicagoland Speedway is one of many changes reflected in the 2021 schedule, and by no means a reflection of the support our fans have demonstrated. Rather, it is a desire and an important step for the industry to incorporate new markets and new courses into the schedule, and expand the variety of competition.”

In the forseeable future, Alex Bowman is the final Cup race winner at Chicagoland, while Cole Custer is the last premier series victor at Kentucky.

Texas Motor Speedway loses its summer date to a new event at Circuit of the Americas, but will be compensated with the All-Star Race. Usually held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the exhibition race was moved to Bristol in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. After Charlotte, Bristol, and Atlanta, Texas will be the fourth track to host the ASR. Unlike during its run at Charlotte, the ASR will also be moved to June, turning it into a midseason event at the halfway point.

Pocono Raceway will return to its original title as the lone track with doubleheader races. Due to COVID, various races in 2020 like Darlington, Michigan International Speedway, and Dover International Speedway had two races in a weekend to make up dates cancelled or postponed by the pandemic. Both tracks will lose their second dates in 2021.

A bye week will take place between the Bristol dirt race and Martinsville Speedway for Easter (4 April). A two-week break is in place for early August (1 and 8 August, between New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway) as NBC is covering the rescheduled Summer Olympics.

2021 will set a NASCAR national series record for the most road races in a season with six. Circuit of the Americas and Road America are new stops for the top level, while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race moves to the road course. The three dates join the returning Charlotte Roval, Sonoma Raceway, and Watkins Glen International; Sonoma and Watkins Glen return after being forced by COVID to cancel their 2020 races.

The ten playoff races remain the same as in 2020, though Kansas Speedway and Texas swap slots as the latter becomes the Round of 8 opener. For the second year in a row, Phoenix will wrap up the season.

“It’s an honor to once again be the host track for the most important weekend in our sport and it’s an opportunity all of us at Phoenix Raceway are extremely excited about,” Phoenix president Julie Giese said. “With the return of the NASCAR Championship Weekend, coupled with an action-packed spring event weekend, the 2021 schedule at Phoenix Raceway is set to be another memorable year for our fans, our local communities and the entire state of Arizona.”

Many of the tracks have started selling season tickets for 2021, though they are subject to change depending on developments in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many events in 2020 have been held behind closed doors due to the coronavirus, though some have allowed limited attendance.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

New stops

Bristol Motor Speedway dirt

The Cup Series has not visited a dirt track since 1970 when Richard Petty won at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Five decades later, the series will be back on the dirt, but at a very familiar venue.

Bristol Motor Speedway, which has 500-mile day and night races, will convert the former into a dirt track event. It will not be the half-mile short track’s first foray into dirt track racing, having hosted the World of Outlaws in 2000 and 2001. The race was called off after just two editions as hauling in dirt from a nearby farm for an pavement track proved to be a logistical nightmare.

It will be just the second time a NASCAR national series has raced on dirt since 1971. Since 2013, Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway has hosted the NASCAR Truck Series.

Track general manager Jerry Caldwell said, “As everyone knows, Bristol Motor Speedway is the home to big events and we feel like this will be one of the most anticipated races in the NASCAR Cup Series in quite some time. We have proven in the past that we know how to transform Bristol Motor Speedway into one of the most pristine dirt facilities anywhere around, so we can’t wait to see how the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series will perform on the high banks at the World’s Fastest dirt Half-Mile.”

Circuit of the Americas

For much of its history, Circuit of the Americas has been regarded as a possible track for the NASCAR Cup Series. In 2021, it will finally become reality as NASCAR visits the Austin track for the first time. The news was initially reported by The Athletic far in advance on 21 September.

Since its opening in 2012, COTA has served as Formula One‘s American stop with the United States Grand Prix. Besides F1, other series that have raced on the track include the IndyCar Series and closed-wheel disciplines such as IMSA and the Stadium Super Trucks. The X Games have also been held at COTA, which included motorsports like SST and Global Rallycross.

Despite many fans’ calls over the years for NASCAR to make a stop, a long-contended roadblock surrounded Texas Motor Speedway, located approximately 221 miles away. TMS head Eddie Gossage has long quarreled with COTA over motorsports supremacy in the state, criticising F1 for scheduling the USGP on the same weekends as NASCAR races at Texas and objecting to other series like IndyCar’s dates at the road course.

Other skepticism surrounded COTA’s layout, which critics have suggested is not practical for stock cars. Nevertheless, NASCAR cars have turned laps around the 20-turn circuit, including a vehicle swap in 2013 between NASCAR’s Kurt Busch and James Courtney of the Supercars Championship. The Supercars would also race at the track in 2013 on a shorter configuration. In 2019, Stewart took Haas F1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen for a ride-along in his #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, which operates TMS, will oversee the COTA race.

“Our company is proud to have a 60 year history of fabulous firsts in motorsports entertainment, and we are honored to bring America’s premier racing series to one of the world’s most renowned entertainment venues and cities for the very first time,” SMI President Marcus Smith said. “I’d like to thank COTA CEO Bobby Epstein as well as NASCAR’s executive leadership for supporting us in an endeavor to do something that we believe will be spectacular for race fans, not only in Texas but around the world. We work and challenge ourselves every day at Speedway Motorsports to create amazing experiences that will last a lifetime, and we know NASCAR at COTA will deliver in 2021.”

COTA will replace the first Texas race. All three national series will take part.

“Everything is bigger in Texas, including our passion for NASCAR, and NASCAR will be even bigger and better in Texas in 2021 with the addition of this race in Austin,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott commented. “Along with the races at Texas Motor Speedway, this will be a great experience for NASCAR fans in Texas, while also boosting the Texas economy.”

Credit: Stewart-Haas Racing

Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course

With racing on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval growing unpopular with fans, the Cup Series will follow in the Xfinity Series‘ footsteps and start turning right at the Brickyard. NASCAR’s second tier began competing on the IMS road course over the oval in 2020, running the fourteen-turn configuration used by IndyCar for its Grand Prix races there.

The inaugural Pennzoil 150 lived up to the excitement with a dramatic battle in the final laps between eventual winner Chase Briscoe, fellow Xfinity title contenders Austin Cindric and Noah Gragson, and road expert A.J. Allmendinger.

It will be the second infield road course point race for the Cup Series alongside the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Although the Daytona road course was used as a replacement for the cancelled road race at Watkins Glen in 2020, it will not host a points event in 2021, instead being used for the exhibition Busch Clash.

IndyCar and NASCAR will once again collaborate on a doubleheader for the weekend, scheduled for 14 and 15 August.

“Our first NASCAR-INDYCAR weekend was a big success last July, with positive feedback from our loyal fans who watched the races on NBC and from the drivers, teams and participants involved,” commented track president J. Douglas Boles. “The Xfinity Series’ debut on the IMS road course provided exactly the kind of thrilling action from the green to checkered flags that we anticipated, so we know the teams and drivers of the Cup Series will put on a great show as they turn left and right for the first time at IMS.”

With the move to the road course, it will end a twenty-seven-year run on the oval dating back to 1994. Kevin Harvick is the final winner on the 2.5-mile rectangle.

Nashville Superspeedway

Revealed in June, Nashville Superspeedway will host NASCAR races for the first time in nearly a decade.

Built in 2001, the 1.33-mile track welcomed the now-Xfinity Series that same year, while the Trucks and IndyCar Series have also made stops there. After it was removed from the schedule in 2011, the track was demoted to a testing facility for various teams with no major series racing there.

However, with NASCAR hosting the awards banquet in Nashville in 2019 (the 2020 edition was cancelled, but also planned to return to the city), a return was made more likely. The city will also welcome back IndyCar in 2021 with a street race outside the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium known as the Music City Grand Prix.

Road America

Although the four-mile Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin has hosted the Xfinity Series since 2010, its lone Cup race came under the Grand National Series banner in 1956. In a race most notably covered by Sports Illustrated that year, Tim Flock won as attrition took out his rivals.

“The way I figure it, this race will be won by the driver who can go the fastest the slowest,” said Lee Petty in the article. Flock, a 2014 NASCAR Hall of Famer, remarked, “This road racing is all right.”

The race will assume the 4 July weekend date previously held by Indianapolis.

“Since we welcomed the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2010, our fans have been asking for the NASCAR Cup Series, and we are very proud to make it happen on the Fourth of July,” stated track head Mike Kertscher. “The weekend is going to be memorable and exciting for everyone as we celebrate Independence Day at America’s National Park of Speed. We encourage new and returning fans to get their tickets and campsites early because we intend to host four full days of on-track action. Our entire staff is excited to welcome the teams, drivers, and new visitors to show them that Road America is the ideal facility to come for the experience and stay for the race.”

Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Full schedule

Ex.Daytona International Speedway road course (Clash)9 February
Ex.Daytona International Speedway (Duel)11 February
1Daytona International Speedway14 February
2Homestead-Miami Speedway21 February
3Auto Club Speedway28 February
4Las Vegas Motor Speedway7 March
5Phoenix Raceway14 March
6Atlanta Motor Speedway21 March
7Bristol Motor Speedway dirt28 March
8Martinsville Speedway10 April
9Richmond Raceway18 April
10Talladega Superspeedway25 April
11Kansas Speedway2 May
12Darlington Raceway9 May
13Dover International Speedway16 May
14Circuit of the Americas23 May
15Charlotte Motor Speedway30 May
16Sonoma Raceway6 June
Ex.Texas Motor Speedway (All-Star Race)13 June
17Nashville Superspeedway20 June
18Pocono Raceway26 June
19Pocono Raceway27 June
20Road America4 July
21Atlanta Motor Speedway11 July
22New Hampshire Motor Speedway18 July
23Watkins Glen International8 August
24Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course15 August
25Michigan International Speedway22 August
26Daytona International Speedway (regular season finale)28 August
27Darlington Raceway5 September
28Richmond Raceway11 September
29Bristol Motor Speedway (Round of 16 elimination)18 September
30Las Vegas Motor Speedway26 September
31Talladega Superspeedway3 October
32Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Round of 12 elimination)10 October
33Texas Motor Speedway17 October
34Kansas Speedway24 October
35Martinsville Speedway (Round of 8 elimination)31 October
36Phoenix Raceway7 November
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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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