Road courses ruled the day as NASCAR’s top circuit unveiled its 2021 slate, one that featured new locales and old sites getting a makeover.
Which race on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series slate are you most excited for? pic.twitter.com/xXncTqej68
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 30, 2020
The 36-race tally and 500-mile opener at Daytona notwithstanding, the NASCAR Cup Series’ 2021 schedule bears little resemblance to its predecessor.
NASCAR unveiled next year’s slate on Wednesday, featuring three courses making their Cup Series debut and a pair of renowned auto racing landmarks undergoing a special makeover. The five new races are the most added to a Cup Series schedule since 1969.
“(This is a) hugely exciting day for NASCAR, really everyone involved in the industry,” NASCAR Executive Vice President & Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said after the release. “We said back early in 2019 that we wanted to evolve the schedule. 2020 was going to be a year where we could make some moves within the portfolio of races we had. Really, (in) 2021 and beyond you’re going to see some really bold changes from NASCAR.”
NASCAR has sought to create new innovations in racing as they enter this new decade. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed some changes, but the sport was nonetheless the first major North American sport to return to full-time competition in the midst of the ongoing health crisis. In addition to this new schedule, further innovations await, including a new racecar template, known as the “Next Gen” car, that will debut during the 2022 season.
When it comes to the schedule, O’Donnell hinted that the changes may have only just begun.
“The primary goal for us was to continue to evolve the schedule, to continue to build it, to continue to listen to the fans,” he said. “2021, we believe, is a really bold step in that direction, but we’re not done. There’s 2022 and beyond where we’ll continue to look at making changes that we believe are in the best interest of the sport in key markets and key iconic racetracks as well. We’re going to continue the journey.”
The following tracks/formats will be making their debut next season…
Bristol Dirt (March 28)
Many NASCAR drivers have gotten their start on local dirt tracks. Next spring, NASCAR will cover the iconic asphalt at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first dirt track race at the Cup Series level since a visit to the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in 1970. Previously, the lower-tier Truck Series would make an annual dirt visit to Eldora Speedway, with current Cup competitors Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, and Christopher Bell each earning a win in the Eldora Dirt Derby. This year’s race was called off due to the pandemic.
Circuit of the Americas (May 23)
This 3.426-mile road course in Austin, Texas has previously hosted numerous forms of auto racing, including Formula One and IndyCar. Having hosted the former’s United States Grand Prix event since 2012, COTA is the first American venue to be specifically built for F1 racing.
Nashville Superspeedway (June 20)
Originally opening in 2001, financial woes caused Nashville to close ten years later. However, the track will reopen by hosting the 2021 Father’s Day event, its first NASCAR-sanctioned event since its shutdown. Though the Cup Series descends upon the track for the first time, previous winners at the 1.333-mile oval through Xfinity and Truck endeavors include Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano. The Nashville date takes one of two race from Dover International Speedway.
Road America (July 4)
Perhaps nothing could define Independence Day better than a NASCAR race at a track called Road America, located in Plymouth, Wisconsin. This 4.048-mile road course has hosted the Xfinity Series since 2010, its most recent win going to Team Penske’s Austin Cindric in August.
Indianapolis Road Course (August 15)
The Cup Series will make a change to its annual visit to the Brickyard, eschewing the 2.5-mile rectangular oval for the 2.44-mile road course. Earlier this season, the Xfinity Series made the change early, going with a 62-lap event won by Chase Briscoe.
Other changes and notes relate to more familiar locales…
- As is tradition, the season will open with the running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway (February 14). However, the exhibition race known as the Busch Clash, traditionally held a week before the main event, will now be run on Daytona’s road course, which hosted its first Cup Series race in August (won by Chase Elliott).
- After Daytona, the series will remain in the Sunshine State, with the second race shifting to Homestead-Miami Speedway (February 21). Homestead previously hosted the season final for nearly two decades (2002-19) before being moved up to March, though the Dixie Vodka 400 was run in June due to the pause.
- Incumbent tracks Chicagoland and Kentucky were left off the schedule. Chicagoland had hosted races since 2001, while Kentucky was the most recent venue to join the Cup Series schedule in 2011.
- Darlington Raceway has been scheduled to host multiple events for the first time since 2004. Commonly known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, Darlington hosted three events this season, the first two being rescheduled races and the first to be run in the return from the pause. The first race will come on May 15, while the Southern 500 retains its status as the opener to the Cup Series Playoffs (September 5).
- Atlanta Motor Speedway likewise returns to two-date status, its two races scheduled to be run on March 21 and July 11. AMS had not hosted two events in a single season since 2010.
- Texas Motor Speedway will host its first NASCAR All-Star Race on June 13. The All-Star exhibition shifted to Bristol this season after over three decades at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Texas did lose one of its points races, but retained its playoff date (October 17). The All-Star will also serve as the season finale for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage before transitioning to the networks of NBC.
- Save for flipping Kansas and Texas’ spots in the Round of 8, no changes were made to the NASCAR Playoff schedule. The season will end at Phoenix Raceway for the second straight season (November 7).
- The Cup Series will have two weeks between New Hampshire (July 18) and Watkins Glen (August 8) to account for the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season continues on Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC).
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags