There are still 32 races remaining in the 2020 Cup Series season, but for many in the NASCAR world, the focus steers more toward the 2021 campaign. In addition to a brand new car, NASCAR has promised a revamped schedule, which was initially going to be revealed in April. However, NASCAR President Steve Phelps recently told the Arizona Republic only some details of the schedule will be released next month.
How radical the changes will be are anybody’s guess, but for more than a year, NASCAR brass has suggested everything is on the table. Whether it’s adding a street course, a weekend doubleheader with IndyCar, or a midweek race, the modifications are likely to be the most sweeping we’ve seen in years.
With all the uncertainty surrounding the new calendar, what does this mean for current tracks with Cup date(s)? It’s hard to say. What are the criteria for keeping a track on the schedule? Would NASCAR pull a track’s one and only date from the calendar?
Kentucky Speedway is one of nine tracks on the NASCAR circuit with just one Cup date each year. The 1.5-mile oval in rural Sparta will host its tenth premier series race in July. As of yet, there is no promise of a return date in 2021. However, track general manager Mark Simendinger remains confident Kentucky Speedway isn’t going anywhere.
“This is pro sports,” he says. “Nothing is guaranteed for anybody. That’s the way it goes. But there is no concern that Kentucky won’t have a race, I can tell you that.
“Kentucky is in a great spot. What they end up doing with the schedule is up to NASCAR. I’m sure they get plenty of input from (Speedway Motorsports president Marcus Smith) on what he would want to see as it relates to the SMI tracks. But I wouldn’t worry about Kentucky.”
Simendinger points to Kentucky’s consistency on the schedule as a big plus. Every Cup event in Sparta has befallen between June 30 and July 14. Moreover, in what is now a rarity in today’s NASCAR, Quaker State has served as the title sponsor for the Cup race since the inaugural event in 2011 and is signed on through 2022. Simendinger considers it one of the most significant accomplishments of his career.
“Look at the schedule of the past few years,” Simendinger says. “Kentucky has kept its date essentially the same for how many years in a row. And what happens around us? All sorts of stuff. We got other tracks moving all over the place. We’re not all over the place. We’ve got our date. Our numbers are really, really good. Our sponsorship is really, really good. The energy level is here. This is a special place.”
The track underwent a repave following the 2016 race. The result was back to back years of Follow the Leader. It also didn’t help that Martin Truex Jr. kicked everybody’s tails in both races.
Then came the new “P-word” for 2019. The result was the best finish in speedway history as the Busch brothers went toe to toe in a frantic two-lap shootout.
“The fact is before they changed that aero package, the racing at the mile and a half tracks was really struggling,” says Simendinger. “The prevailing tone we would hear from fans was, ‘Oh geez, they aren’t good. We want to go to road courses and short tracks.’
“Then all of a sudden you had last year. You can make a very strong argument the backbone of racing last year in NASCAR was at the mile and a half ovals.
“Bring it here locally, of the best races, if not the best race of the entire year was at Kentucky Speedway. It’s a finish that, if I had written it ahead of time and submitted that to you, you would’ve said ‘Oh Mark, come on. That’s ridiculous.'”
Simendinger acknowledges any dialogue with NASCAR regarding the 2021 schedule runs through SMI president Marcus Smith, Kentucky Speedway’s parent company. So for Simendinger, it’s business as usual, preparing for a tripleheader July 9-11.
“I’m as confident as I can be in something that is not my decision,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s not my decision, but we’re sure spending a lot of time, money, and energy into improving things here. I don’t think there is any indication that we won’t be racing here for a long, long time.”
Quaker State 400 – Past Winners
2011 – Kyle Busch
2012 – Brad Keselowski
2013 – Matt Kenseth
2014 – Brad Keselowski
2015 – Kyle Busch
2016 – Brad Keselowski
2017 – Martin Truex Jr.
2018 – Martin Truex Jr.
2019 – Kurt Busch