Now, let's get back to racin'

Updated: May 14, 2004, 4:44 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

It's about time.

The major news that emanated Friday from NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., rocked the stock car racing world.

Not only has the so-called "Ferko lawsuit" been settled to pretty much everyone's satisfaction -- the highlight being the addition of a second race date at Texas Motor Speedway in 2005 -- NASCAR also sold North Carolina Speedway to rival Speedway Motorsports Inc., which promptly dropped the one race date left there so that it could be moved to TMS.

Also, NASCAR eliminated one of two annual race dates at stoic Darlington Raceway to allow a second annual race at Phoenix, and then moved up the first California date to the week after the season opener at Daytona (replacing Rockingham).

Finally, 16 months after announcing its highly touted "Realignment 2004 and Beyond" program, NASCAR has pulled the trigger on some of the most significant changes to the Nextel Cup schedule ever seen.

And, for perhaps the first time in several years, we have a schedule and alignment that most everyone can be happy about -- from NASCAR's International Speedway Corp. subsidiary to Bruton Smith's SMI holding.

No longer will we have to wonder when -- or if -- TMS will get a second race date, as Smith claimed Bill France Jr. promised him seven years ago. Nor will we have to wonder how the Francis Ferko lawsuit was going to pan out. Quite frankly, NASCAR found it more economically feasible to settle the case out of court, give Smith his coveted second date at TMS and move on.

No longer will we have to wait for a second race at Phoenix, which is perhaps one of the most underrated one-mile tracks on the circuit. The aesthetics of racing in the desert, along with the burgeoning populations of the Phoenix metro area and Las Vegas just five hours away, was more than enough to warrant a second event.

No longer will we have to complain about Rockingham's remote location, where it seemed like it took days to get there, as well as the lack of available hotel rooms which forced some fans to stay 80 miles away in Charlotte, or some more than 100 miles away in Concord. That's a heck of a commute for three or four days in a row on a race weekend. And with hellish traffic to and from the racetrack, folks sometimes spent more time in their cars than in the stands watching the race.

And, while many will miss seeing two races each year at Darlington, NASCAR's rationale to spread the wealth is understandable. Darlington has had its day in the sun, and while it remains a viable racetrack, it doesn't draw like Phoenix, California or Texas have.

Rockingham
This sparse crowd last February at The Rock helped doom it.

Overall, this is what I've expected to happen. My only slight disappointment?

I thought for sure that Las Vegas Motor Speedway would get a second race date in 2005 like its sister track, TMS. I mean, having a second event each year in Vegas is a no-brainer, with the abundance of hotels, the tens of thousands of out-of-town fans that fly in for a race and a little gambling on the side, and Vegas' world-class reputation. It's no wonder that the annual early March race is so popular. NASCAR could have doubled-down on its Vegas bet and really hit the jackpot.

But I guess that's something we can wait for until 2006, hopefully.

Of course, that leaves one to wonder what track would have to lose one of its races to give Vegas a second date. With the additional announcement Friday of NASCAR's purchase of Martinsville Speedway, its two annual race dates aren't going anywhere.

But what I do see, if you'll allow me to look into my crystal ball, is a further realignment of the Cup schedule in 2006 or 2007.

What I predict is you'll not only see the usual season-ending race at Homestead, Fla., be switched with the annual Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona -- thus beginning and ending the season at Daytona -- but a likely expansion of the schedule to 37 races in 2006 and 38 in either 2007 or 2008.

We could see Las Vegas finally get its second date in 2006, and a new event at a facility still to be built somewhere near the Seattle or Portland areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Unfortunately, such movement will continue to shut out places like St. Louis, Nashville, Kentucky and Colorado Springs from their hopes for a Cup event. But it's unlikely any of those facilities will land a Cup event until probably 2009 at the earliest -- unless NASCAR eventually pushes the schedule from 36 to 38 to 40 races.

But now that Friday's deed has been done and Rockingham is history and Darlington is but a shadow of itself, one has to wonder which track(s) will be the next victim of the "realignment" schedule. In other words, who's on the bubble now?

It's ironic that NASCAR made the announcement on the same weekend it resumes racing after a week off at Richmond International Raceway. For it's the same RIR that has also been mentioned more than a few times as potentially losing one or both of its annual races.

Even with the millions of dollars in improvements and upgrades that have been put into the Richmond facility in the last year, there's still a possibility NASCAR could pull one of its races -- or both -- and give those dates to either an existing track (Kansas City and Chicago are also beckoning for second dates), or to tracks like Nashville, St. Louis, etc., that are clamoring for just their first date.

The same thing about the future fate of Richmond can also be said for places like Pocono and Watkins Glen raceways, which are both aging and not exactly favorites for many of today's Cup drivers.

Or what about plans for tracks to eventually be built not only in the Northwest, but also in the New York City metro area or Vancouver or Toronto? Where does NASCAR get race dates to accommodate those potential venues?

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. What NASCAR did Friday was help resolve a lot of the issues that have smoldered for a long time.

Now, we can get back to real and true racing -- and not have to worry about the other distractions. And that's the best thing that came out of Friday's news.

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.

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