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Drivers Say Shuffle ‘Em Up And Deal In 2011

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 6 2010

Kentucky Speedway is headed to the big time. Drivers say that is good and too bad. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Stating that NASCAR racing had become “stale” at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sprint Cup points-leader Kevin Harvick says the impending wholesale changes to the 2011 schedule should not shock-and-awe anyone.

“I think all tracks need to be held to a standard,” Harvick said Friday at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, site of Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen. “Whether it be safety, whether it be crowd attendance, whether it be whatever it is.

“Sometimes things become stale. It’s a constantly evolving sport. Whether it’s in the garage or out into the racetrack schedule, or whatever it may be. If a market is stale, we have to go someplace where the grandstands are full.”

Ed Clark, the president of AMS, announced Thursday the 1.54-mile layout in Hampton, Ga., would be losing its spring Cup date in 2011 while retaining its Labor Day Weekend event.  AMS has hosted two Cup events since it opened in 1960, but its spring date is expected to go to Kentucky Speedway next season.

The management of Kentucky Speedway – a sister 1.5-mile track owned by Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. – has scheduled a news conference for Tuesday afternoon for a “major announcement regarding the future” of the track in Sparta, Ken.

Recall that Harvick scored his first Cup victory at AMS in March 2001. It was Harvick’s third career Cup start as the driver who replaced Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing following the seven-time champion’s death in a crash during the season-opening Daytona 500. Harvick edged Jeff Gordon by 0.006-seconds in what stands as one of AMS’ landmark moments.

But Harvick, who also owns and operates NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams, was in a bottom-line frame of mind Friday at WGI.

“The biggest boom we have ever seen in this sport came in 2001,” Harvick said, “when we went to new venues in Chicago (Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.); we went to new venues in Kansas (Kansas Speedway) and you had all this movement with the schedule and you created all these new fans.

“Iowa is a great example,” said Harvick, referring to Iowa Speedway in Newton. “You go there for a Nationwide race; you go there for a Truck race; the first time I went there for an East race, the grandstands were sold-out. You have to have that kind of excitement. This sport is too popular to not go to venues that are not sold-out. If it is not sold-out, you need to be held accountable as a racetrack. That is, in my opinion, what is going to happen.”

Jeff Burton, Harvick’s RCR teammate, said Atlanta’s date loss apparently will be the first in a series of changes involving a smorgasbord of tracks: Kentucky Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway is expected to gain its long-rumored second Cup race at the expense of Auto Club Speedway, a sister facility in the International Speedway Corp. empire.

TMS, another 1.5-mile layout in Smith’s SMI family, has scheduled a “party announcement” for Tuesday, Aug. 17, in Dallas. Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman/CEO, will join Smith, TMS president Eddie Gossage and two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in announcing “dramatic changes” to the track’s schedule. It is rumored that one of the track’s two Cup dates will become a night race _ most likely in the spring and on a Saturday night.

The entire 2011 Cup schedule reportedly will be announced on Wednesday, Aug. 18.

“It looks like a lot of stuff is going to get shuffled-up, and I think as long as it’s shuffled correctly, I think it’s a good thing,” said Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet Impala. “I’m not a big believer that change is always good; I’m a believer that good change is good.

“We’ve seen in Atlanta some good racing, but we haven’t really seen the crowds there. You always think of Atlanta being a real strong traditional, southern racetrack with a lot of race fans there, but the fact is that we haven’t seen that. I think the Labor Day race was really well-attended last year, but we just haven’t seen the crowds that we’re used to seeing there.  That’s my perspective of it.

“I think it’s a sign of the times.  If racetracks aren’t supported by the fans then we’re going to see those races moved somewhere else where the fans are going to support it. I always hate to see a racetrack lose a date because I know there’s a lot of fans that do make both of those races and love that racetrack and love the area where the racetrack is.

“At the same time, it’s capitalism. If there’s another venue where more people can come in and more people can enjoy it then that’s where you can expect the show to be going.”

Case in point is Auto Club Speedway, located about 50 miles from the lucrative Los Angeles market. The track opened with Hollywood-style hoopla in 1997 and was awarded two dates for the 2004 season. But attendance steadily has waned, despite initially playing host to the coveted Labor Day Weekend race formerly entrenched at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

“I think one of the problems is people don’t want to sit in 110-degree weather and watch a race,” said Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., and driver of the No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevy. “That’s the first problem, probably with the second date. I don’t necessarily know all the answers or have all the answers or know all the problems, but I think you probably could make a list of things that could be changed to make it better.

“Sometimes one race is going to be better than two races for a racetrack because you can put a good crowd in there. When we first went there, we had good crowds. You just have to look at the differences of what has happened between then and now and one of the things is that sometimes people say, ‘Well, they’re having two races this year so I’m going to go to the second one.’ So, instead of having the whole crowd at one race, you have them at two races. So, sometimes, more is not better for some venues.”

Pointing to the business-side, Harvick also noted that he was unaware of a concerted advertising campaign in his hometown for previous Cup weekends.

“Bakersfield is probably the biggest racing town,” Harvick said. “So when you talk about racetracks being held accountable, sometimes the people running them have to be held accountable as well.”

Four-time series champion Gordon – who also is a four-time winner at AMS – said he remains a “big fan” of the track that used to play host to the season-ending champion’s weekend.

“I love going to Atlanta,” said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevy. “You hate to see a race go, but you also have to understand the business of the sport.  When we go to Atlanta and they’re having a hard time selling it out and there’s an opportunity to go somewhere and grow our fan base and take the series somewhere they’ve never been before – which is potentially what’s going to happen – then I think that’s exciting and a good move.”

Atlanta remains a prime market for NASCAR advertisers, and Gordon noted that one race should still serve the corporations headquartered there.

“The sponsors (are) just like NASCAR and the rest of us; they want to see a packed grandstand,” Gordon said. “They want to see a lot of excitement around the event.  They want to see the viewership numbers at home.  I think those are probably the most important things when it comes to an event.

“(And) you have to understand, Atlanta is not really ‘Atlanta.’ It’s (Hampton) 45 minutes away from Atlanta.  I think that wherever we end up going, I think if it (move to Kentucky) draws a bigger crowd or at least draws a lot of attention and excitement and puts on a great race, then I think it’s a good change.”

Carl Edwards stamped himself as a rising Cup star in 2005, when he swept both races at AMS and punctuated the wins with his patented back flip-celebration.

“I think Atlanta is one of – if not the greatest – oval that we go to,” said Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “I think that track has all of the things that make racing fun. It has history and a surface that is really fun to race on. The fans there are very knowledgeable about racing and it’s a grueling race. It’s fast and exciting, so to lose a race there to me is a little sad. I love that place and every time I come through the gates reminds me of my weekend that I won my first two races in this series.

“To go to Kentucky though, those fans there really love NASCAR racing, so that will be great if that is what happens. I think all of us will enjoy going to Kentucky. In the end, it would be pretty neat to go to all the tracks one time. I don’t know how the politics work, but it would be fun to go to all the tracks one time. Coming to these road courses (Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and WGI) once a year is special, not only for us, but for the fans. Maybe it will work out better and let more fans enjoy the sport.”

Denny Hamlin noted that the mood surrounding the Labor Day race at AMS last year was amped-up by a switch to a night-time start.

“It was almost an All-Star feel to it when we took the green,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “At least they’re running the one race at night-time, it seems like.  As far as other racetracks getting dates, I’m not for or against it. Kind of indifferent.  If they could just cut our (36-race) schedule back, that would be great, anyway.”

Clint Bowyer, in his fifth full season with RCR, said he is fine with the impending schedule shakeup.

“I think it is probably time,” said Bowyer, driver of the No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevy. “Some of the races make sense, some of them don’t in my opinion. Losing Atlanta is a disappointment to me. I think there are a couple of other tracks that have two races that I would have my rathers of, if it was my pick, of going once. That is frustrating.

“I think every time we go to Kentucky, Kyle (Busch) and all of us who have run Nationwide races there, it is always a packed house for a Nationwide race. Can’t imagine what it would be like for a Cup race. I think that is a good location to have a race and an awesome fan turnout, which is ultimately the task at hand.

“I think it’s going to be sad to lose Atlanta; I think that is one of every driver’s favorite racetracks and (as) we do lose it, it’s going to be a bummer.”

Meanwhile, Watkins Glen’s proximity to Canada prompted an inquiry about the Cup Series perhaps eventually heading north. The Nationwide Series currently competes on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve road-course in Montreal, which also plays host to the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix.

“I think that’s obviously a great market, not only for the race, but I think for the sponsors. I’m all for it,” said Harvick, an accomplished road-racer. “I don’t think you’ll have a hard time convincing the drivers or the fans or anybody.

“I think it’s just a matter of how that would fit into the Sprint Cup schedule with all the racetracks that are doing good.  It’s hard to find a slot, we can’t add weekends to what we do, it’s already a long season.  Obviously the market is good and that would be a good question for Mr. (Brian) France.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 6 2010
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