Believe it or not, changes afoot

Updated: April 9, 2004, 5:38 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Casual fans love NASCAR for the on-track action, and that's all well and good.

But behind the scenes, you'll also find a jackpot of fun: Rumors, speculation and hyperbole often turn the day-to-day routine into something interesting.

You never know what you're going to hear, from mild to wild. Or for that matter, what is and isn't believable.

The most recent spate of rumors going around -- if even partly true -- could spell a radically different Nextel Cup schedule in 2005. And while NASCAR has denied at least some of those reports, we know from history that what NASCAR officials pronounce an unsubstantiated rumor one day can suddenly become reality the next.

In case you haven't heard the latest, pay close attention -- this gets a bit complicated.

First, several reports have NASCAR's annual foray to Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International Raceway being moved southward -- south of the border, that is -- to an unnamed facility in Mexico City. Whether it will be a fixed racetrack, road course or even a temporary street course is anyone's guess.

But the increasing chatter about such a move is hard to ignore, especially given how much NASCAR wants to increase its popularity with the Hispanic community in Central and South America.

It's gotten to the point that Watkins Glen International President Craig Rust told the local Elmira (N.Y.) Star-Gazette newspaper earlier this week that as far as he knows, NASCAR isn't going anywhere other than returning to WGI for many more years to come.

"At no time has anyone from ISC (International Speedway Corporation, which owns the Glen) given me any indication that the date would be leaving here," Rust said. "We are operating confidently that we are going to host a Nextel Cup race in 2005 and beyond."

"The rumor mill is going crazy right now," Rust added to the Star-Gazette, "and frankly it's gotten out of hand. If there was something there (to the story) that we were in jeopardy of losing our date or that was being talked about in a serious manner, someone from ISC would have picked up the phone and called me."

In a phone call with ESPN.com, NASCAR spokesman Herb Branham also denied the Watkins Glen event was going anywhere, but did not deny the sanctioning body has its sites set on someday soon holding some form of race in or near Mexico City.

"Right now, we're in the early stages of the sanctioning processes," Branham said. "Yes, we are having discussions about a future race, be it either a Busch Series or Craftsman Truck Series event, in Mexico City, but there's nothing on the table of also having a Nextel Cup race in Mexico City any time soon. That takes speculation to a whole new level."

Matt Kenseth
AP PhotoWas Matt Kenseth's win at Rockingham last February the final Cup event there?

But Watkins Glen is just the tip of the rumor mill. The next bit of information could potentially shake up Cup racing more than we've seen in many years.

Here is a sampling of the rumors floating around the press room last week at Fort Worth:

  • North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, which already lost one of its two events this season (to California Speedway), will reportedly go the way of North Wilkesboro Speedway and become a part of NASCAR's past history in 2005. In other words, it's possible that this past February's race there may have been its last Cup event ever. Failing to sell out that event certainly didn't help its long-term status with NASCAR, that's for sure.

  • Darlington Raceway, which had its annual Labor Day date moved to November, yet still managed to retain both of its regular races this season, is rumored to potentially lose one of its two events next season. Even with a multi-million dollar renovation and updating of the oldest facility on NASCAR's schedule, reports have NASCAR prepared to move Darlington's annual early spring event to Phoenix, giving the Valley of the Sun two Cup events beginning in 2005. It makes sense: hundreds of thousands of snowbirds -- re: NASCAR FANS -- flock to the Southwest every winter for both the warm weather and baseball's spring training. A Cup event would be a natural addition and take full advantage of the increased numbers of fans there at that time of the year.

  • If rumors are to be believed, one of the two Virginia tracks on the circuit -- Martinsville Speedway or Richmond International Raceway -- or potentially both, could lose one of their two annual races in 2005. Or, if only one of the two loses an event, it could be packaged with the loss of the remaining Rockingham event to award second dates to both Texas Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway for next season, part of a potential settlement in the lawsuit from Speedway Motorsports Inc. stockholder Francis Ferko against both NASCAR and its facility arm, International Speedway Corporation.

    That suit is scheduled to go to trial early next month in federal court in Plano, Texas.

    "We won't have any comment on those (scenarios) because of the pending litigation related to the Ferko case," Branham said.

    But wait, there's more.

    Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway are also reportedly on the list to get second events, perhaps as early as 2006. Of course, that means one of two things: either more races are taken away from existing tracks, or the 36-race schedule will be expanded, which NASCAR officials have been reluctant to do. However, talk has circulated of late of canceling the non-points pre-season Budweiser Shootout and the Nextel Cup Challenge in mid-May and applying those dates for second events at Chicagoland and Kansas, thus making it a 38-race schedule for points.

    And we haven't even scratched the surface about what NASCAR intends to do with other tracks clamoring for Cup events in places such as Nashville, St. Louis and Kentucky.

    There's also talk that the annual Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway on the 4th of July weekend may be flip-flopped with the current season-ending Ford 400 in Homestead, Fla., thus starting and ending the season in the same locale, Daytona Beach, Fla.

    Any way you slice it -- and whatever rumors you choose to believe or not believe -- it's likely that this year's Nextel Cup schedule will be but a shadow of itself come 2005 and 2006. Longstanding traditions and legacies will likely give way to new dates and locations, where new traditions can be built.

    Of course, not all the rumored changes are likely to happen. But whenever there's this much talk at this early stage of the season, after just seven races -- and involving so many different racetracks and scenarios -- you can bet at least some of the current rumors are already a long way toward becoming reality.

    The only question is, which ones?

    Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

    Jerry Bonkowski | email

    Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
    Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.