The official 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule might not be officially released for another two months, but a NASCAR executive created some intrigue with recent comments that the wide-ranging changes the sanctioning body has made to the schedule will likely continue in coming years.
The Cup Series schedule had been one of the most stable aspects of any sport for nearly two decades, although it was not necessarily the correct move to roll out the same itinerary year after year.
Brian France changed nearly everything about NASCAR except the schedule
NASCAR dumped Rockingham Speedway from the circuit and took away Darlington Raceway’s annual second race after the 2004 season in a period of transition for the sport. Brian France became CEO in 2003 and ushered in a wave of changes throughout the sport.
The longtime title sponsorship of NASCAR’s top series went from tobacco company Winston to telecommunications company Nextel, and the championship format changed drastically from a season-long points battle to a 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup postseason format to determine each season’s champion.
Yet, for all of the seemingly constant changes during France’s reign from 2003 to 2018, the schedule remained nearly identical year after year. One of the most common complaints fans had through the years was that the schedule had become stagnant.
Part of the issue late in his tenure was that the sanctioning body entered into a five-year sanction agreement with 23 tracks late in 2015, which ensured those facilities would remain on the schedule for at least another five years.
“The stability of five-year agreements positions us well to deliver fans with schedules as early as possible over the next several years,” now-NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell said when he was executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “This is a new approach for our industry, and one that benefits everyone: fans, tracks, teams, drivers, (manufacturers), media, and partners.”
Static schedule did not help NASCAR grow
It is debatable whether or not that strategy worked, and the sanctioning body’s actions in the last three years seem to suggest it did not. NASCAR no longer announces attendance numbers, but television ratings bottomed out in 2018 with a record-low average of 3.3 million viewers per race, down from 4.5 million in 2016, according to Nielsen figures.
Viewership remained flat in 2019 and 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the 2020 campaign, and nearly every other sport could not match its viewership totals from previous years.
The pandemic also forced NASCAR’s hand in making what appear to be long-needed changes to the schedule. The sanctioning body still had to hold the 38 races it promised to sponsors, so leaders got creative and raced where they could.
New ideas explored during the 2020 season included Cup Series races on back-to-back days at the same track (successes at Pocono and Michigan) and mid-week races (not a success, at least in terms of TV ratings).
The series also raced on the Daytona International Speedway road course for the first time, and now the series has six road-course events on the 2022 schedule.
The flexibility of the 2020 schedule led NASCAR executives to get bolder in recent years now that the sanction agreements are complete and International Speedway Corp, which owns nearly half of the tracks on the schedule, is no longer a public company after NASCAR merged with it in 2019.
The Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was a considerable risk but paid off in a big way, and the wider variety of tracks and new markets on the schedule have generally been a hit. Viewership for the first 16 races of the current season is up 6 percent to nearly 3.7 million viewers.
Bold schedule changes likely to continue in the near future
The new NASCAR strategy to try new tracks in new places along with old tracks the series hasn’t visited in many years sounds like it will remain for at least the next two years.
O’Donnell said Wednesday on SiriusXM that NASCAR leaders anticipate “one big event” added to the Cup Series schedule for 2023. He did not divulge what type of event that could be but did acknowledge that the sanctioning body would like to move the All-Star Race from Texas Motor Speedway.
The possibilities are intriguing. Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns TMS, so the race would likely move to another SMI track, or it could host a race at a different track the way it does NASCAR events at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas. That could open the door for the rumored Chicago street course to happen.
SMI also is about to reopen North Wilkesboro Speedway and is working with government leaders in Nashville about getting NASCAR back to the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
Maybe NASCAR leadership has something completely different in mind, but it is fun not to already know what next year’s schedule will look like because it won’t be a copy-and-paste regurgitation of the previous slate.