- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Let's get this out of the way right at the start: I really do like the concept, format and just about everything related to the Nextel All-Star Challenge, formerly known as The Winston.
And yet I want to see it, and the preseason Budweiser Shootout and the twin Gatorade 125s, gone. History. Fini.
As contradictory as that may sound, let me explain.
For as fun and exciting as those four non-points earning events may be, they really have no bearing upon what every driver, crew chief, car owner and team member is in Nextel Cup racing for in the first place, namely the championship.
And, in light of last week's "realignment" announcement -- dropping North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham completely off the schedule, taking away one of Darlington's two annual races, and awarding second race dates to both Texas and Phoenix -- plus the still high demand for more in-season races, NASCAR would be better served to eliminate all non-points exhibition or all-star events in favor of awarding those races to tracks that perhaps should be hosting the Nextel Cup Series currently, but aren't.
Sound harsh? Well, much of this stems from several radio show appearances I've made over the last few weeks. Virtually every show host or co-host has asked me the same thing: "Why doesn't (fill in the city) have a Cup race?" or "When do you think (fill in the city) is going to get a Cup race (or a second yearly Cup race)?"
From Portland to St. Louis to most recently Tuesday morning on a Kansas City radio station, I have been asked the same questions over and over. Kansas City already has an event -- and a popular one at that -- and now wants a second yearly race, as does its counterpart in Chicago, as does Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
And then there's cities like Portland and St. Louis, which want their first event, as do places like Kentucky and Nashville. Let's not forget New York City, which is trying to seduce NASCAR to bring its traveling road show to either side of the Hudson River -- be it in the Big Apple or in New Jersey -- with promises of building the biggest and best racetrack NASCAR has ever seen, the Yankee Stadium of stock car racing, if you will.
Let's look at things in a different light. NASCAR is already mulling over the possibility of altering the schedule in the next couple years to include mid-week racing under the lights in prime time (gee, you don't think a potential TV ratings bonanza has anything to do with that, do you?). That's one way to squeeze in more races and expand the present 36-race schedule.
Now follow me here: Eliminate the Budweiser Shootout and the twin Gatorade 125s and move the Daytona 500 up to the first weekend of February (NHRA drag racing has historically started its season around then). That way, you suddenly have two more race weekends available.
Then, take away the Nextel All-Star Challenge and you have a third weekend free.
Three weekends, three more races that could be held at places clamoring for Cup racing.
And, if you add in, hypothetically, four mid-week races during the course of a season -- and those could be scheduled in the general area of Charlotte to make travel easier, places like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville or Richmond -- and suddenly you can expand the current 36-race schedule to between 40 and 42 events with minimal effort.
More than 20 years ago, the National Football League came up with a similar plan. After decades of being a primarily Sunday-only league, it took the bold step to add Monday Night Football to its schedule, and eventually added occasional Thursday Night Football coverage as well. What happened? MNF has become ingrained as part of our sporting culture and heritage, and TNF could be slowly on its way to doing the same.
Why can't NASCAR do something similar, if it will help appease racetracks or communities that want the traveling Cup circus to plop itself in their burgs for three or four days every year?
Again, this is not to knock the Nextel All-Star Challenge. But think for a second about its origins: It's a contrived format created several years ago by the folks at now-departed R.J. Reynolds for The Winston, solely for the purpose of making an event with a unique three-heat gimmick. How necessary is the Challenge in the whole scheme of things?
It has no bearing on the standings, it features virtually all of the same drivers we see from race to race, and other than a big payday for the top finishers, how is it truly different than a regular race?
Now, if we took, say, the top 20 drivers and put them in rickshaws or on horses, that would truly be a unique event. But racing just doesn't lend itself to all-star events like we see in other sports.
Look at how the International Race of Champions (IROC) series has dropped in popularity in recent years. While IROC is still in business, its longtime sponsor, True Value Hardware, felt it wasn't getting the return on the millions of dollars it had funneled into the program, particularly in the last few years. Exit True Value, and after a long search, enter Crown Royal Whiskey as sponsor for at least this year.
But as for the future, will Crown Royal be around as a sponsor next season? Or, for that matter, will any other company step to the plate to sponsor the unique "all-star" event in coming years?
Nearly everyone who races week-in, week-out in the Nextel Cup also is eligible to race in part or all of the three-pronged Challenge. As an all-star event, that dramatically reduces the overall value. It's more of a sales event -- originally for Winston cigarrettes, and now for cell phones.
Nextel has already renewed its deal to host the Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway next season, so don't anticipate NASCAR to take it off the schedule and replace it with a points-paying event until 2006 at the earliest.
And as for the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade 125s, they've been great events all these years, but if it means they should cease for the betterment -- and expansion -- of the sport, hopefully the firms that sponsor those events will realize they can potentially get even more value if they sponsor regular points-earning events at some of the tracks that patiently are waiting to get into the Nextel Cup Series mix.
And that way, every one -- cities and tracks waiting for new events, potential race sponsors, current team sponsors, and NASCAR -- becomes a winner.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.