NASCAR balances old, new in 2015 schedules
August 27, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Long before "Save the Dates" were vogue and news came via Twitter "scoops," the release of NASCAR's three national schedules got less TV time than today's Air Titan track dryers get during a rain delay.
For the most part the dates and venues were a formality. Fans -- and the sport itself -- were reasonably set in their ways. And why not? The predictability worked well for fans, tracks and teams, and it was considered a model for continuity and contentment.
With NASCAR's explosive venue expansion that began in the mid-to-late 1990s, the schedule grew and diversified.
Quite naturally, so did the suspense and intrigue surrounding it.
So it is a bit ironic that Tuesday's much-anticipated nationally televised announcement of all three NASCAR national series 2015 schedules was highlighted by a well-received shift back to that tradition -- the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Southern 500 returning to Labor Day weekend at historic Darlington Raceway.
Bits and pieces of the schedule leaked out and tantalized in the past few weeks, but it was still a massive undertaking to be able to reveal all three national slates at once. And the excitement and attention it has generated is a real sign of the sport's growth.
The scheduling shows a common-sense approach that eases travel, restores some traditional dates, factors in local weather trends and adds intrigue and events to race weekends like a same-day doubleheader of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series events at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Feb. 28.
And it even gives everyone a well-timed extra off-week just before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins, situated between the Aug. 22 Bristol night race and the Sept. 6 race at Darlington.
Armchair quarterbacks may still clamor for a shakeup in the 10 Chase championship venues -- I'd still love to see a road course included -- but that may also come in due time. Change has been the norm, not the exception in recent years.
Beyond restoring Darlington's traditional date, the biggest thing that stands out in 2015 is a much-applauded shift toward geographical practicality.
Instead of crisscrossing the country, the first three races out west -- at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Fontana -- occur in consecutive weekends. Not only will that help contain costs for teams and perhaps entice fans to consider a three-race NASCAR road trip, it just makes sense.
When the series return east of the Mississippi, there is a robust mix of mile-and-a-half ovals, short tracks and a superspeedway (Talladega) to head into the hot summer with competitive flare.
A slight shift in July dates -- the July 5 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona will be on a Sunday just this year and the Kentucky tripleheader moves from June to July -- highlights a familiar summer slate that will culminate and benefit from that extra off-weekend. And the 2015 championship elimination will have the added advantage of following on this year's inaugural format that has already produced Cinderella Chase berths and created dramatic urgency in these final two weeks to set the 2014 16-driver field.
The television contract, which brings NBC and NBC Sports Network back into the NASCAR fold along with longstanding trailblazer FOX, will undoubtedly create excitement and a new vibe worthy of NASCAR's willingness to evolve and transform.
The new schedule is a tangible example of the sport's wise willingness to balance tradition with forward progress.