NASCAR officials needed to be flexible when putting the finishing touches on the 2024 national touring schedules and would probably tell you in a moment of candor that they didn’t get everything they wanted.
At the same time, senior vice president of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy was able to positively respond to numerous fan-driven asks while also crossing off the checklist several programs that were very important to industry stakeholders.
For one, Kennedy completed an agreement with the City of Chicago to give the entire street race concept a second chance, important because the inaugural running was somewhat married by historic rain that never provided the sanctioning body a chance to showcase what it wants to offer cities around the world.
At the same time, it’s no secret that NASCAR had hoped to conduct a race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Canada to replace the under-reconstruction Auto Club Speedway in California but simply were unable to come to terms with the promoters of the venue.
That’s how Iowa Speedway came to make its Cup Series schedule debut, something that has proven to be popular amongst drivers and fans alike, as both have wanted to see the premier division come to the NASCAR owned track 30 miles east of Des Moines.
The return of the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway instead of an infield road course race was met with widespread acclaim on both sides of the catchfence as was having both races at Bristol Motor Speedway on concrete after three years of the spring event on a temporary clay configuration.
Kennedy, who is also the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and a former Truck Series winner at Bristol Motor Speedway, conducted a press conference on Wednesday to detail the scheduling decisions and the key takeaways have been provided below.
What happened to Montreal?
When asked about why the race in Montreal didn’t materialized, Kennedy did not provide specific details but offered a broad response about his well-documented desire to eventually bring the Cup Series to an international venue of some kind.
Kennedy has specifically had meetings to that end in the United Kingdom, Australia, China, Canada and Mexico over the past five years.
“As we think about international venues in general, we still are bullish about finding our way either north of the border, whether that be in Montreal or Toronto or another market, or south of the border down into Mexico,” Kennedy said. “As we’ve mentioned in the past, we want to bring our NASCAR Cup Series there at some point.
“We think it’s important for us to get outside of the United States with our series in some way, shape or form, so that’s something we’re going to keep our pulse on as we think about 2025 and beyond.
“As we have mentioned in the past, timing is always critical to a lot of these venues, and we want to make sure that the market is ready for the NASCAR Cup Series, that the timing makes sense for the industry and the sport, and hopefully we’ll be able to move in that direction at some point.”
What is now the Xfinity Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve from 2007 to 2012. It also raced at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico City from 2005 to 2008. The Cup Series conducted three non-points races in Japan from 1996 to 1998 at Suzuka Circuit and Twin Ring Motegi.
Iowa, the backup plan
In its natural configuration, Iowa Speedway seats 30,000 fans and was never considered a Cup facility from an infrastructure standpoint over the past decade. However, it is owned by NASCAR and was a popular stop for drivers during that time span.
However, a pair of IndyCar races over the past two years with financial support from the Hy-Vee grocery store chain has led to a modernization of the facility and made it a worthwhile backup plan for Kennedy and his team, even if he wouldn’t characterize it as such.
“Iowa Speedway was something that we’ve talked about for quite a while,” Kennedy said. “This is something that we’ve been hearing from our fans for a long time, and Iowa in particular, that we want to see a Cup race there.
“Unfortunately had to take a bit of a hiatus over the past few years with COVID for the Xfinity Series and Truck Series but felt like it was important for us to get back to Iowa Speedway.”
The only hesitation on bringing the Cup Series to the 7/8th-mile now is that the second year NextGen car simply does not deliver compelling short track races with its current configuration. NASCAR has made several downforce decreases in the pursuit of better racing but it has not produced positive results yet.
On the other hand, Iowa is an extremely wide track with progressively banked corners that should allow drivers to find clean air to complete passes. Brad Keselowski, who was on hand for the announcement ceremony on Tuesday, certainly hopes so at least.
“It’s got progressive banking in it,” Keselowski said. “That allows you to find clean air and do different things where you can move around the track. I think that was a really good design feature that helps combat some of the things that we’re always talking about with the aerodynamics of the car and traffic and so forth, so I’m interested to see that play out.”
Two wild card playoff rounds?
Over the past two weeks, the NASCAR community has spoken at large about how perilous the second round of the Cup Series playoffs can be with both a drafting track at Talladega and a road course in the Charlotte ROVAL taking up two of the three races.
Both venues can feature high attrition, and the results can sometimes be random as a result, and NASCAR is going to have two wild card rounds next year to begin the playoffs with Atlanta, a drafting track, and Watkins Glen, a road course, joining Bristol in the first round.
Kennedy said there are no concerns about what this does to the sporting integrity of how a champion will ultimately be decided.
“No, not really,” Kennedy said in response to a Sportsnaut question. “That’s something that we’ve talked about quite a bit internally, and we’ve debated as a scheduling team, certainly competition has weighed in, and we’ve had conversations with teams around what this could look like.
“It’s certainly something that we hold very dear to us is making sure that the quality of the racing product and the parity is really strong.
“That said, I do think Atlanta races like a plate track, but you also have a lot of comers and goers, and you need to have a good driver and a fast car to be competitive there, as well… Adding it to the Round of 16 is going to be exciting. Having Watkins Glen there is going to test the drivers’ skill, and then Bristol is an iconic racetrack for us.
“Having an Atlanta race in the Round of 16 and Talladega in the Round of 12 I think is going to be really exciting for our fans to see.”
Midweek races, doubleheaders?
NASCAR has long considered hosting a race on the Wednesday after the Major League All Star Race, the quietest day in sports, but never has landed on the right track to take on such a concept.
The sport was forced into midweek races during the pandemic during the 2020 pandemic season, but fans were also not allowed to attend those races, and the television ratings were considerably worse off on weekdays than on weekends.
Thus, no doubleheaders were scheduled for 2024, even if one was considered for Richmond to compensate for the two-week Olympic break.
“We talked a lot about that,” Kennedy said. “We talked a lot about midweek races. We’ve had conversations about doubleheaders. I can’t tell you how many scenarios we went through. We ended up with our 24th version of the schedule. It was scenario B of 24.
“There are a number of different variations that we go through as we think about building the schedule, and those were some of our considerations. We got to see a lot of that play out, especially during COVID in 2021.”
Ultimately Kennedy recognizes that his fans prefer races to be on Saturdays and Sundays and scheduled accordingly.
“Does it mean that it looks a little bit different on the ’24 schedule? It does. I think as we’ve said, we’re going to continue to test and edit it. Is the schedule ever going to be perfect? It’s not. It’s going to be a journey for us.”
Back to back superspeedways
The start of the points-paying season will now begin with back-to-back drafting style races at Daytona (500) and Atlanta Motor Speedway. That is before the west coast swing at Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Kennedy says he wanted to capitalize on two exciting tracks that appeal to a broad audience.
“I think for starters, as you think about the spring date, Daytona 500 is our biggest event of the year, and we carry a lot of momentum in the early part of our season,” Kennedy said. “With seeing how Atlanta has played out over the past couple of years from a racing product perspective, obviously we want to see how it both started and evolved over the repave, and after seeing several races play out in Atlanta felt like it made sense to move it into that second slot after Daytona.”
But also, with Fontana out of the picture for now, there are only so many tracks in the south NASCAR can schedule in February and March until winter subsides — thus Atlanta in February and Richmond in late March.
“Naturally we don’t have a ton of racetracks that we can race at in Florida or the southern part of the country where it’s a little bit warmer in February and March, so we do have to stay mindful of it,” Kennedy said.
“That said, we feel like having Bristol that time of year will make a lot of sense, and coming out of the West Coast Swing heading back to Bristol, Martinsville and then Richmond on Easter, those have always been somewhat close to each other and have some date equity around it, so we didn’t want to move them too far from their current homes.”
Future of dirt?
For the first time in a decade, there are no NASCAR national touring races on dirt, but Kennedy said this isn’t the end.
“We’re certainly open to dirt racing, whether it be with our Cup Series, Xfinity Series or Craftsman Truck Series. Something we’re going to continue to consider,” Kennedy said. “That said, I think after we’ve seen racing on the dirt at Bristol play out for the past few years and hearing some of the fan feedback, we felt like it was an opportunity for us to shake things up a bit, move back to the concrete surface in the spring, and move back to all asphalt and concrete tracks for ’24.”
Tony Stewart remains interested in having his Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio host the Cup Series and Knoxville Raceway in Iowa is a Cup caliber facility as it is.
“I think that said, as we think about what the future looks like, dirt racing does have a unique place in motorsports. You think of a lot of our drivers, they came from dirt racing,” Kennedy said. “You think of some of the best racing that I’ve personally seen, it’s on dirt.
“Do I think there’s going to be a dirt race sometime in the future? I think so. What that track looks like or what the time is, we’ll see, but it’s something we’re going to keep our pulse on for sure.”
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.