In July of 2001, the christening of the Chicagoland Speedway ended with a young Kevin Harvick winning the first NASCAR Cup Series race at the brand new track in Illinois. Alongside Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland was one of two brand new tracks on the 2001 NASCAR schedule.
But before long, they gradually became the last of their kind.
After a boom period of building new racetracks in major markets, NASCAR’s schedule became an immovable object for many years, with only one major addition to the schedule – Kentucky Speedway in 2011 – interrupting what became an otherwise gradual settling of worn-out faces into worn-out places. As NASCAR went through lean years in terms of relevance, the schedule became a major sore point.
Even, Harvick — 14 years after that win at Chicagoland — called the Cup Series schedule the “most stagnant thing” in NASCAR. But now, that’s all changed.
As part of the realignment of the 2021 schedule, NASCAR will visit a brand new track for the first time in a decade on Friday when it travels to Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. Opened in 2012, this weekend will mark COTA’s first NASCAR races after previously having hosted Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix, as well as other road racing and sportscar events.
And it also marks a refreshing challenge for Harvick, who has mastered all other tracks as a Cup veteran of two decades.
“I think for me, it’s actually been a lot of fun,” Harvick told CBS Sports of preparing for COTA. “I think as I look at our road race stuff in the past, and really just going to Sonoma and Watkins Glen for a number of years, you kind of just took that for granted and just prepared on what you did last year in the simulator one time and know the racetracks like the back of my hand.”
The 2021 schedule has brought with it an unprecedented emphasis on road racing in NASCAR, as a total of seven road courses were placed on the Cup Series schedule. Circuit of the Americas joined Road America in Wisconsin, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway road courses as outright new additions to a schedule that also included Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
Those changes, as well as other additions to the schedule, have made for new — and in Harvick’s mind, overdue — challenges to be embraced by competitors.
“I think as you look at the schedule, we could have been way ahead if (NASCAR) would have just listened five or six years ago, right?” Harvick said. “I think it’s very refreshing to see the change in the schedule. I think as you look at today’s world from my perspective, everybody likes something different, something new, something fresh.
“We’re going to a new market, we’re going to a great racetrack that’s obviously already building its own racing legacy. And however the race turns out this weekend — It matters, but it doesn’t. I think the event is the story this weekend because of the fact that we’re going to a great facility in a huge market. And we’re gonna go there and compete.”
When Harvick was a Cup Series rookie in 2001, the culture surrounding road course racing with stock cars was distinctly different than what it is now. While a select few drivers made a point to be good road racers, others simply tried to survive the weekends, and some even stepped out of their cars to allow road racing specialists — “Ringers” like Boris Said, Ron Fellows, and more — to give their teams a better chance of competing for wins.
But over time, road racing became more popular with fans and other stakeholders. As Harvick explained it, Sonoma Raceway in California’s wine country became a “destination point” for sponsors, while Watkins Glen in upstate New York became a “fan hit” with sellout crowds.
Meanwhile, drivers began to put more time and effort into road racing as it took on greater importance towards determining the Cup Series Playoff grid and Championship. And with seven road races now on the schedule — and perhaps more to come as NASCAR grows and expands — road racing has become more important than ever.
“… I think road racing in general has become a part of what we do,” Harvick said. “In order to expand, you’re gonna have to be able to go to road races, especially if you want to go back to Canada or back to Mexico City (both markets where the NASCAR Busch Series raced in the mid-2000s) and do all the things that we need to be doing that we’ve done in the past, and really opens up a whole new outlet of racetracks for us to be able to go to.”
Sunday’s race at Circuit of the Americas has added importance for Harvick and his team: it will mark the first race of the Mobil 1 Thousand promotion, which will award $1,000 or more to a fan if a driver using Mobil 1 wins a Cup race this season. The jackpot begins at $7,000, with Harvick running a gold, dollar bill-laden paint scheme aboard his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this weekend.
“Obviously Mobil is very involved from the performance side of what we do with the racecar, a huge part of the development process with the engine shop at Roush Yates and trying to always create something more durable, something that creates more power, whether it’s in the engine or the transmission or the rear end,” Harvick said. “Whatever that lubricant is, Mobil wants it to be the best … those people at Mobil that are developing those products to make our cars run faster are very much a part of what we do.”
Through 13 races, Harvick currently sits eighth in points with four Top 5 and 10 Top 10 finishes, His best finish was coming in second at Kansas. However, Harvick’s season to date has been framed more around the idea of shock that he’s yet to visit Victory Lane — a surprise given that Harvick won a career-high nine races in 2020.
Harvick acknowledged that he has a tough act to follow, but he is nonetheless pleased with what he and his team have done so far as they work to re-capture their dominant speed from last season.
“I think our team has done a great job of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts and really making sure that we’re getting the most out of our cars on a weekend,” Harvick said. “… Every year there’s changes to the cars. I think comparing last year to any year in my career, it’d look like a real bummer, right? Because of the fact that last year was so successful.
“There’s always gonna be critics whether it’s good or bad. You’re never good enough, and that’s why we just kind of keep our head down and pay attention to the things that we can control and keep grinding away.”