Tinkering with the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule is underway.
While Kansas Speedway’s swap of dates with Darlington Raceway for Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race was the only switch on the 2014 calendar, NASCAR might be making significant changes next year.
With new television partners NBC and NBC Sports coming on board for the second half of the season for the next 10 years, “Monday Night Racing” may be one of the new wrinkles, depending if a track is interested in making such a move.
Stronger than expected television ratings when the rain-delayed 2012 Daytona 500 was pushed into a Monday night could be an impetus for prime-time racing on either Fox or NBC.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to do one here,” Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren said of a Monday night race, particularly in June or July. “That would be a television-driven issue.”
NASCAR expects to receive requests for schedule changes from tracks over the next few weeks and will see if it can make changes for a track such as Kansas, which was able to move its April date to early May for its first night Sprint Cup race with the hope of eventually moving to June or July.
“Everybody would love that June, July summer date. … Unfortunately we’re not able to deliver 36 of those,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president/racing operations. “We do our best to really manage all expectations with tracks, particularly with Kansas.
“We were well aware a night race was in high demand. We weren’t able to get them all the way to where they wanted to be in terms of June or July, but with some working through (International Speedway Corp., which also owns Darlington) … we were able to get them that night race. As we go forward, we’ll look to continue to see if we can do to get further in the summer window.”
The 5-hour Energy 400 will be the first Saturday Sprint Cup event at Kansas Speedway since it opened in 2001 and the third springtime race since the facility was awarded a second Cup date in 2011. Warren is aware moving to a Monday night would cause problems for fans who travel great distances for a weekend race when they are off work.
Fans from 49 states (all but Rhode Island) and eight foreign countries — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cayman Islands, Croatia, Germany, Mexico, Zealand and Switzerland — have tickets for this weekend.
“If you race on a weeknight, it’s hard for people to come from out of state,” Warren said. “It becomes a more Kansas City-based event, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but creates different marketing challenges.”
There is also something to be said for establishing equity in a race date, such as the fall race at Kansas Speedway, which has been held on the final weekend of September or early October since the track opened.
“Fans make plans well in advance and travel long ways to our races,” O’Donnell said. “If Kansas remains on Mother’s Day, and it works, that’s something fans will put on their calendars. If we change that every single year, it becomes a challenge.
“What we want to do, especially with the new TV partners coming in, is take a real hard look at the schedule. If there are some opportunities that work for everyone, this would be a great year to put things into play. When you look at Kansas this weekend, we’ll look at what the fans think of being there at night.
“If there are some dates that make sense for the fans and are a win-win for the tracks making those requests, I think you’ll see us make that move.”
Scheduling issues have been bubbling for a while. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, recently made a detailed proposal — a “Dream Schedule” — on his blog, calling for radical changes.
It included grouping together the West Coast races — California, Phoenix and Sonoma; scheduling midweek races to create doubleheaders with nearby weekend races; moving the All-Star Race to the penultimate weekend; and shifting the season finale from Homestead-Miami to Las Vegas.
“Why is the schedule so sacred?” Keselowski wondered. “Everything else has been cut, changed, chopped, and rebuilt. Why not that?
“We all agree we could do better, but nobody knows what are all the logistical issues, why the schedule is what it is, so it’s not really fair to criticize it because no one really understands it.”
Hall of Famer and three-time Sprint Cup champion Darrell Waltrip agrees with Keselowski’s grouping of tracks, saying he would like to see a series of West Coast races, short-track races and 1.5-mile track races.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that NASCAR should quit focusing on changing rules for the cars, and look at something that really needs to be done, and the schedule is in dire need of revamping,” Waltrip said. “It’s hodgepodge. They can’t just move one race around and call it a new schedule.
“Put the Southern 500 back at Darlington on Labor Day where it belongs.”
Waltrip’s partner in the Fox booth, former crew chief Larry McReynolds, would like to see NASCAR experiment with a midweek, night race in Bristol, Tenn.
“Move it from the middle of March to when we know we’ll have better weather,” McReynolds said. “We’ve been trying to race there in March, and it just doesn’t work. Even if the forecast is good, there are still no butts in the seats. … We go back there in August and have a great crowd. Put it in late spring or early summer.”
Keselowski doesn’t buy the argument that midweek races would be tough sells for tracks.
“If we have great racing that you can’t miss, they’ll still come,” Keselowski said. “A million people went to Woodstock. … They still played during the middle of the week, didn’t they?
“If it’s a can’t-miss event, people will come.”