With all the focus still on finishing out the 2014 season, NASCAR has already released the schedule to next year. The usual cast of tracks returns, and the Chase still has the same 10 facilities on board to determine a champion. But there have been some shake ups in where the teams go week to week from the start of the year to when the final checkered flag waves.
Some are good moves, some are questionable, and others were long overdue. But in reality who were the winners of the realignment, and who were the losers.
In a way it's a bit murky to determine that before this year has even concluded, but there are some venues who did win out in the end, while others are left wondering, and even some outside items that both won and lost in the end.
Here's a look at both sides of the spectrum:
Darlington Raceway: If there was ever a doubt as to who got the ultimate pick-up from the 2014 schedule, it's the "Lady in Black." Over a decade has passed since NASCAR visited this speedway on what was their normal, expected, weekend of action. For nearly 50 years they were the Labor Day delight for fans, a way to ring in the fall season and also a sign that school was coming to a start for many areas in South Carolina.
Yet in 2004, the Southern 500 moved to the fall, it's lone year in the Chase, and one year later, they were reduced to only one race a season. The 2003 year for Darlington was one to remember for both races. Ricky Craven against Kurt Busch in the spring still is talked about to this day with how it finished, then Terry Labonte's win in the fall, which would be his final victory of his career, was a great way to remember what tradition was at the track. That's not to say since the track went to only one date that it's been detrimental to the speedway, as they sold out every race at the track from 2005 through 2009, and saw both youth and experience take victory at the famed track.
But something was still missing. Even though they did have a holiday race, as in Mother's Day, it didn't have the same feeling as it did on Labor Day.
NASCAR understood this, and knew that tradition runs deep, so they gave Darlington what they deserve, their normal weekend. It just feels right to try and tame Darlington the weekend of Labor Day, and both fans and drivers will agree on that.
Bristol Motor Speedway: One thing that has plagued Bristol for a long while is their spring race. It's not that it doesn't deserve two weekends of short-track action, but there has constantly been a run of bad luck in this race with weather. Dating back to the mid-1990's, the early-March race date has presented some difficulty with how Mother Nature has treated fans. Either the race doesn't make the scheduled distance, or activities leading up to the race have been cut short due to the skies above. Even ole-man winter had a say in it years ago as teams brought knit hats and puffy coats just to stay warm.
Fans have been asking to move the early weekend race to later in the year, and finally they get it.
Maybe it will help out with attendance for the spring race as well. It's no secret that the night race will always be the most sought-after seat besides one at the Daytona 500, but up until a few years ago whether it was daylight or darkness, this track sold out every event. Now, it's difficult to look at the back straightaway during the spring because the only view on television is of metal seats, not spectators.
With the date moved to mid-April, it will help with weather as it will be warmer, as it's also the time of year for spring football practices at the University of Tennessee, and will possibly make more fans come out to the track for that early race. Now if only there was a way to figure out this track so it's not a flirtation with the wall every lap; that should be meant for only Darlington.
Three Vs. Two: This sounds a bit confusing, but it is more about the fact that unlike how the schedule has been for the last few years, NASCAR was able to work in three off-weekends for the teams compared to just the two. The biggest difference in how the off-weekends are in 2015 compared to how they were before, they are more evenly spaced out. When the Daytona 500 had it's usual Valentine's Day date, or around that time, the first off-weekend came just two weeks later, and it seemed way too early. Then it would be the usual Easter break, and also one in the middle of the summer. There was no consistency in when the teams were given a break.
That is not the case in 2015. The first off-weekend for the top tier series comes on April 5, which is the Easter weekend. Six races are in the books by that time, which also covers a majority of the different track styles seen in a season. It's a good time to take a breather, and maybe get over the early season jitters.
Moving forward, the next break for the series is the weekend of June 21, right at the beginning of summer. Not a bad time to take a break and enjoy the longest day of the year, and also it comes nearly halfway into the season. It's also a good time for teams to get an adjustment on the following weekend, since the race is at Sonoma, and it's a good weekend for teams to possibly test to get ready for it.
The final off-weekend comes right before Darlington, on August 29. This is right when kids are just getting ready to go back to school, or move into college. A good time to take a breather and get set for a final run to the championship.
More time away from the track definitely will do everyone a bit of good, so NASCAR making an extra off-weekend is a benefit for all.
Atlanta Motor Speedway: The absolute worst end of the deal when it comes to race weekends goes to a track that is a lot of fun for drivers, and it's the one teams are visiting this weekend.
When Atlanta took over the Labor Day weekend date after the Auto Club Speedway was reduced to one race every year, it was a major hit not just for fans, but teams and even NASCAR officials. The track president and owners were being thanked for holding the race at such a fast speedway, and promoting it to bring in the fans for a Sunday night, primetime event. But now, Atlanta is back to having what they had years ago, an early-season date in which during the later years, before they were reduced to only one race, had trouble filling the grandstands.
That and it's still within a timeframe where the weather could play a factor in how the race weekend takes place, both the actual race and the practice/qualifying session leading up to the green flag. The track will have to work extra hard to keep the excitement that the track is known for, but as it stands right now, having an early-season race in Atlanta will be a difficult thing to sell.
The "Western Swing": The fact of the matter is the idea of having all the west-coast races in one grouping seemed like a good idea on paper, but it's a difficult thing to do for both teams and fans.
Normally, having a break between two of these races is beneficial because then fans can possibly make all the races over a period of a couple months, meaning they can save money for that third race or split up the two they normally attend and save money in the long run. Now, it's even more difficult, if not outright impossible.
Phoenix, Las Vegas and California (Auto Club Speedway) now happen in successive weeks beginning on March 8. The only "western swing" that seems to work well is the one that has happened for the longest time, and that's in the NHRA with Denver, Sonoma, and Las Vegas all happening within a couple months. This will be a challenge for fans to attend, and also a big struggle for teams due to the cross-country drive for the hauler drivers for three weeks. At least they will get a great view of the country when they are both leaving the shop and returning to it.
Television Networks: Really, this is being included? Now, before passing judgment, there is nothing wrong with having just FOX and NBC broadcasting races. Keep in mind, before ESPN and TNT came on to broadcast, it was just those two networks with broadcasting rights. The only thing that changed was which network had the opening race at Daytona compared to the summer date.
That is now exclusive to FOX for many seasons to come, but the reason the television coverage is in this category is because of FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network. Specifically, it's for the fans at home that don't have these networks as part of their cable or satellite package.
What does this mean? It means that those without FOX Sports 1 will miss the first two night races of the year, Richmond and Kansas, the All-Star Race and the final four FOX-contracted races, which are Dover through Sonoma. But consider those fans without FOX Sports 1 the lucky group, because those without NBC Sports Network got a raw deal.
NBC will have the final 20 races of the season. Of those 20 races, only seven will be carried on NBC, including just five of the Chase races. Obviously, Sunday Night Football takes the lead on the national stage beginning in September, but of those 13 races that NBCSN will broadcast, that includes the Brickyard, the Bristol night race, and Richmond, which again is the final race before the Chase. During the Chase, Talladega is on the NBCSN docket, which has always shook up the Chase standings, and with the new Chase format could be a key factor again next year.
Fans that don't have either FOX Sports 1 or NBCSN will have to decide whether to pay more to get the networks, listen to the radio, or just follow on Twitter as to what's happening. In any case, despite only having two networks, there is a loss that is going to maybe be tough to overcome.
Make what you want of the 2015 schedule, because no matter what there will be happiness and sadness that comes with it. This is just one man's opinion on who won and who lost.