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Column: NASCAR schedule may not be the overhaul fans sought

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Fans enjoy the NASCAR Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va. Saturday, March 23. (AP Photo/Matt Bell)
Fans enjoy the NASCAR Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va. Saturday, March 23. (AP Photo/Matt Bell)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway will not be part of next year's NASCAR schedule, so come to terms with that now.

Fans have a wish list of changes for NASCAR's stale and stagnant schedule, and they have been led to believe series leadership heard their desires. The highly anticipated 2020 schedule is expected to be announced Tuesday and will show just how seriously the sport's stakeholders have been listening. A vocal majority has called for more short tracks, more road courses, dirt racing and basically anything new at all to a never-ending 38-race schedule.

Steve Phelps became NASCAR's fourth president last October and a month later at the season finale vowed nothing was off the table in regards to a scheduling shake-up.

"Will we see a lot of the things that have been talked about? More short tracks? More road courses? Double-headers? Midweek racing? Pulling the season forward? All those things would be in play," Phelps said.

But NASCAR has five-year agreements in place with all its venues that don't expire until after next season, and that legally prevents the sanctioning body from ripping up the existing schedule and starting from scratch. Those massive changes can't actually happen until 2021, when NASCAR reclaims negotiating power on its events. So what will be released for next season is a collaboration involving NASCAR, track operators and the television partners that strikes a balance of freshening up the schedule within the existing rules and regulations of swapping race dates.

Fans may have mixed reactions to the final result. Those hoping for everything under the sun are going to very disappointed because it just can't happen for next year. Others will likely embrace what is coming as a starting point for eventual sweeping changes. Yes, Phelps promised changes, but a total and radical implosion just isn't realistic for next year.

WHAT IS LIKELY TO BE ANNOUNCED

International Speedway Corp. spent more than $175 million renovating its Phoenix racetrack and will likely showcase the facility as the season finale, rather than the race before the championship round. The finale has been held at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2002, but that race is likely to move elsewhere into the season. Of the three races in Florida each year, the season-opening Daytona 500 is the only one likely to remain unchanged. The traditional July 4th celebration at Daytona International Speedway could be moved later into the summer, potentially making it the regular-season finale that sews up the playoff field.

Pocono Raceway is expected to merge both of its Cup races into one packed double-header weekend, and NBC may have argued successfully for back-to-back off weekends moved into a long August break that coincides with its coverage of the Tokyo Olympics.

Atlanta needs a different date, if for no other reason than to push the event into a more appealing weather-window, and that will have needed negotiations from Speedway Motorsports Inc. head Marcus Smith, who successfully put a "roval" at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year, the first innovative change to the schedule in years.

WHAT ABOUT MIDWEEK RACES?

This can only happen in 2020 if track operators agreed to host a midweek event, and many have argued that giving up a Sunday date will harm their bottom line because they will lose campers. But the schedule as is — 38 events from February to November — is far too long and untenable as NASCAR bids to rebuild the fan base. Teams want a break and a chance to take their own summer vacations, and drivers have been among the loudest in asking for midweek events.

NASCAR's executives have managed to keep most details of the 2020 schedule quiet, so it isn't clear if the midweek hope will become a reality. Although the schedule is expected to be compacted, there is no confirmation on how that's going to happen. But fans are expecting at least one midweek event, if nothing else as a trial balloon to see how it works, and there will be disappointment if NASCAR failed to pull it off.

BUT WE WANTED NEW VENUES! AND A DOUBLE-HEADER WITH INDYCAR!

IndyCar made its debut Sunday at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and NASCAR fans want to see stock cars on the picturesque road course. They also want the Cup Series to race on dirt at Tony Stewart's speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, and return to historic Nashville, a 0.596-mile short track that hosted NASCAR from 1958 to 1984.

All of it sounds great, but it can't be done without other tracks relinquishing their spot on the schedule, and that won't happen until the sanctioning contracts expire and NASCAR regains its leverage.

It's not impossible for a double-header with IndyCar — and it's a smart move for the exposure it would bring to both series — but realistically that's a long-range hope and not something that can be pulled off next year.

There's zero chance everyone will be happy with the 2020 schedule, perhaps because there's so much hope for something new and fresh and special and that's probably a year away. But any changes at all are a victory for fans and a sign of hope that NASCAR is truly listening.

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