Monday, August 9, 2010

Chicagoland to kick off Chase as 2011 Cup schedule takes shape


For weeks we've been hearing NASCAR would be revamping the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule. Last week's announcement about Atlanta dropping down to one race weekend got the ball rolling and started to paint a picture of how the schedule might look for next season.

Today's news regarding Chicagoland Speedway has been the most significant change confirmed so far. NASCAR and track officials announced Monday the 1.5-mile track will kick off the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Chicagoland will replace Auto Club Speedway in the Chase, thereby bumping the New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas races back a week.

The track in Joliet, Ill., will host the first of NASCAR's 10-race playoffs during the Sept. 16-18 race weekend. Chicagoland traditionally held its lone NASCAR race weekend in mid-July. After hosting its third annual night race this year, the 2011 event will be run during the day Sunday. The weekend will also include a Nationwide race on Saturday.

The move allows NASCAR to fire up the Chase in the second-biggest media market on the Sprint Cup circuit, looking to make the most of the increased exposure.

“We could not be more excited,” Chicagoland Speedway president Craig Rust said in a press release. “I don’t think there’s a better location to kick off the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup than in Chicago. It’s the best sports town in the country. Every race in the Chase plays a key role in determining the championship and we’re thrilled that our fans can be part of the excitement.”

NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell said the decision to strip Auto Club Speedway of its fall Chase race left the track with "a much better date for them, kind of back to their traditional date they used to have in the California marketplace that worked well for them.”

Auto Club Speedway used to sell out its spring race weekend from 1997 to 2006 before a second date was added. The track has struggled to sell tickets since.

The Fontana, Calif., track looks likely to return to one race weekend as its owner International Speedway Corp., which also owns Chicagoland and Kansas, is expected to add a second Cup date to Kansas Speedway. The Midwest track received approval in February to build a casino on its grounds.

As a result of moving the Chase kickoff to Chicagoland, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will not open the Chase for the first time since the format's inception in 2004. New Hampshire is scheduled to hold a press conference Wednesday, where it is expected to announce the track will host the second race in the Chase.

O'Donnell said there would be no other changes to the Chase tracks. The Chase schedule would appear to be: Chicagoland, New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

Other reported changes to the 2011 Sprint Cup schedule include Kentucky Speedway gaining a Cup date (a result of Atlanta losing a race) and Phoenix International Raceway moving up its spring event to the second race of the season, after Daytona. Along with Kansas, Kentucky and Phoenix are set to hold press conferences Tuesday.

Texas Motor Speedway has scheduled a press conference for Aug. 17, during which it is expected to announce one of its two Cup events will be a night race.

NASCAR will unveil the complete 2011 season schedule Aug. 18.

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Photo: Green flag waves at the Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland in July. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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