CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR made the first significant changes to its schedule in years by shuffling the 2020 season into a freshened sequence that tries to give the fans what they want to the best of its current ability.
The 2020 schedule released Tuesday moved the season finale to the Phoenix area, and iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway got July 5, which gives it back-to-back summer holiday weekends. Daytona gave up its traditional but often rain-wrecked July 4th weekend for the final race of the regular season, when the playoff field will be completed.
Pocono Raceway will run its two 400-mile races on back-to-back June afternoons, and Martinsville Speedway got a Mother's Day race under the lights as well as a slot in the playoffs -- one of three short tracks featured in NASCAR's 10-race playoffs. Even better for Martinsville, it got the penultimate race for the championship finale.
Bristol and Richmond short tracks both joined the playoffs, as did Darlington Raceway.
The season ends one week earlier than usual, but still includes 38 events that run from a Feb. 9 exhibition race at Daytona through the finale on Nov. 8 at renovated ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix. That includes consecutive weekends off for the first time in the modern era so that NBC Sports can focus on the Tokyo Olympics.
Charlotte Motor Speedway retained the All-Star Race, but Speedway Motorsports chairman Marcus Smith told The Associated Press he was amenable to moving the event to Nashville in 2021.
Smith said IndyCar was also welcome to negotiate doubleheader weekends with a handful of SMI-owned tracks, among them are Las Vegas during its new playoff date in late September that offers cooler temperatures than last year's sun-roasted playoff opener. IndyCar has not raced at Las Vegas since Dan Wheldon's fatal 2011 accident there.
Smith also welcomed talks with IndyCar on the "roval'' at Charlotte Motor Speedway and as a NASCAR companion to Texas during its fall event. IndyCar aims each year to end its season earlier than any of Smith's ideas for SMI-owned tracks.
Although he is open to doubleheaders with IndyCar as soon as next season, Smith was a firm "No" on midweek races. Fans have asked for more short tracks, road courses and even dirt track Eldora Speedway to be added to the stagnant annual schedule. NASCAR was handcuffed by five-year sanction agreements with its existing track partners and won't have the flexibility to add new venues to the schedule until the contracts expire in time for the 2021 schedule.
It meant NASCAR could only swap its existing partners to the interests that suited all the parties involved. There have been calls for midweek races, but Smith was firm in that it was not a financial risk he was willing to take with any of the eight SMI venues with Cup races. He would have done a doubleheader, but said he believes it should be a unique event and special to Pocono. SMI scored victories in moving Atlanta into a weather-friendlier date in March, as well as the first visit to Texas moving a week after hunting season opens. Bristol is now the first elimination race of the playoffs, and the roval at Charlotte is the eliminating race of the second round of the playoffs. Las Vegas also follows the Feb. 16 Daytona 500 as the first race of NASCAR's annual trip west.
International Speedway Corp., the company controlled by the NASCAR-owning France family, moved the season finale to ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix. The company just spent more than $175 million renovating the facility, and there hasn't been enough of a buzz to make it worth keeping the event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Florida track has hosted the final race since 2002, and the Cup series champion has been the race winner since the current format was introduced in 2014.
ISC shoved a race there to March, a month few track operators want because of weather concerns that shouldn't be as big an issue in the Miami area.
Martinsville is perhaps the big winner with not only a race under its new lights system but a race that will decide the championship field of four.
The playoffs now begin at Darlington on Sept. 6, go to Richmond, Bristol, Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas, Martinsville then finally ISM Raceway outside of Phoenix.