Aftermath, Watkins Glen: Do Politics Stand In The Way Of Bold Schedule Moves?

WATKINS GLEN NY - AUGUST 08: Matt Kenseth driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford leads Bobby Labonte driver of the #09 Phoenix Construction Chevrolet and Dale Earnhardt Jr. driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at Watkins Glen International on August 8 2010 in Watkins Glen New York. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

You just knew Sunday's race at Watkins Glen was going to be highly entertaining. It usually is.

Juan Pablo Montoya's battle with the relentless Marcos Ambrose was some of the best racing we've seen this season, and it made for one of the most enjoyable races of the year.

That's one of the great things about the tracks that differ from the intermediate ovals: More often than not, NASCAR provides excellent shows at road courses, short tracks and superspeedways.

Those intermediate ovals, the so-called "cookie cutters?" Sometimes they're good, sometimes not. But it seems the anticipation level among fans for the intermediate tracks is not as high.

Now NASCAR is on the verge of some schedule changes, which it had promised would be "impactful."

That depends on your definition of "impactful," I suppose.

Next year, there will be exactly one new track on the schedule: Kentucky Speedway (another intermediate track). In addition to that, there will be just one new race: A second date at intermediate oval Kansas.

Although there will be some date swaps within the season itself, NASCAR isn't shuffling the deck here – it's just rearranging a few cards.

The changes fall short of the drastic shakeup NASCAR really needs, which would come by opening up the Sprint Cup Series schedule to many different tracks and varieties of circuits.

But if you ask those associated with the sanctioning body and the tracks, it's not that simple. There are complicated roadblocks that prevent real change from taking place.

"I was hoping that we might get to a couple other tracks, but I don't know how all that works, you know?" Dale Earnhardt Jr. said this weekend.

But he does know. Everyone knows. They just don't know why it works that way.

NASCAR often demonstrates its ultimate power and control in many facets of the sport. But not when it comes to scheduling.

It conducts its business as if race dates are owned by other companies, even though every date is under NASCAR's control.

Currently, this is how NASCAR's race acquisition process works: If a track wants to get a race date, it must get a date from another track owned by the same company (and we're not talking about moving dates, we're talking about gaining or losing one).

NASCAR's standard operating procedure is that a track owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. (Bruton Smith) won't take a date from a track owned by International Speedway Corp. (the France family), and vice versa.

For example, SMI-owned Kentucky had to get a date from SMI-owned Atlanta. ISC-owned Kansas has to get a date from another ISC track (Fontana) in order to get two dates (Reason for dates: A casino is being built at the track and could be a big money-maker with two Cup events per year).

Each date is worth more money than we can imagine, so the two main track conglomerates are reluctant to part with a valuable race.

This isn't a written NASCAR rule. It's not a federal law. It's just a business decision that ultimately may hurt the sport's growth.

"The biggest boom we have ever seen in this sport came in 2001 when we went to new venues in Chicago, went to new venues in Kansas and you had all this movement with the schedule and you created all these new fans," Kevin Harvick said this weekend. "Sometimes things become stale. It is a constantly evolving sport. If a market is stale, we have to go someplace where the grandstands are full."

Harvick cited Iowa Speedway as a "great example." The grandstands have been full at the 7/8-mile track for Nationwide and Truck races ever since it opened.

"You have to have that kind of excitement," Harvick said. "This sport is too popular to not to go venues that are not sold out. If it is not sold out, you need to be held accountable as a racetrack."

Earnhardt Jr. was another one of the drivers who mentioned Iowa this weekend, calling it "a cool little racetrack."

But the sport's most popular driver, like the rest of us, knows there's more to it than just saying "Let's go race there."

"Kyle Busch was telling me about it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He runs there in the (Nationwide) Series and he was telling me about the sanctioning fees and all that stuff. It's a lot more difficult than just plugging it in there and going, you know?"

"Politics," he added.

That's precisely the problem. Right now, there are so many obstacles and immovable forces within the NASCAR industry, no one seems to be able to cut through it all and say, "Listen – let's do what's best for the sport and go to the places that benefit the series, no matter who owns the track."

We always hear reasons why things can't happen. But what the sport needs (in many areas) is for someone to step up and say, "We're going to make this happen and worry about the legalities and red tape later."

There's a growing (albeit hopeless) movement within the garage to go to each track one time. That would get NASCAR into many different markets on many different kinds of tracks and make each of those dates a "must see" race for the locals, who would only have one chance per year to see their favorite drivers.

As others have noted, even Fontana was successful with one date; it has failed with two.

"I don't know how the politics work, but it would be fun to go to all the tracks one time," Carl Edwards said this weekend. "Maybe it will work out better and let more fans enjoy the sport."

And maybe it would get NASCAR away from the excess of intermediate ovals, which are the least entertaining to watch but make up the majority of the schedule.

Iowa? Put it on the schedule. The Montreal road course? "I'm all for it," Harvick said. And maybe a different kind of racing would appeal to the people of Southern California.

A Long Beach Grand Prix for NASCAR? Robby Gordon has suggested it. How about a door-to-door at one of the country's best short tracks in Irwindale?

Or maybe something even bigger could grab Californians' attention.

"This might not be a popular opinion, but the type of impression that the people are getting in (California) from watching a race at that track...might be (the problem)," Earnhardt Jr. said. "If they took Talladega and dropped it out of the sky in Fontana, maybe that would be what those people would find more interesting.

"Maybe not better for the sport, maybe not more popular with the drivers and some fans, but maybe that particular market."

You don't think the drama and thrills of a restrictor-plate race would get people more excited than the strung-out racing Fontana currently sees?

NASCAR needs a strong leader to step up and urge the rest of the decision-makers to break the mold – not just on the cookie-cutter tracks, but the mold of the conventional thinking. Go outside the box and add more short tracks, throw in more road courses and take NASCAR to all corners of the country.

Be more creative with the current schedule. Starting the Chase in a corn field south of Chicago may be an improvement over New Hampshire. But why not really make a splash and begin the playoff in an electric atmosphere under the lights at Bristol?

And along those lines, Earnhardt Jr. wondered aloud, "How come nobody's built another Bristol?"

We couldn't tell you. But we're guessing the answer has something to do with politics.

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