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NASCAR’s evolving schedule challenges those racing in Cup today and in the future

HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR’s evolving Cup schedule not only challenges today’s drivers but is making an impact on those who could be the stars of the future.

While there are many ways for drivers to work their way to NASCAR’s top ranks, a focus on a variety of tracks has become more important.

“It’s a unique time for our sport,” former Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell said. “We’re doing new things, new venues, but I think it’s the right move.”

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Since 2019, drivers have run on dirt, inside a stadium, through city streets and on different types of ovals and road courses. Tonight’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway (6:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) is only the fourth on the reconfigured track, which now resembles the speedway racing at Daytona and Talladega.

With NASCAR looking at future changes, including a possible race in Montreal in 2024, potentially more street racing and an event overseas, the skill set future drivers will need is changing.

Kyle Busch prepares son Brexton with that in mind.

“I’m a proponent of getting him in as much stuff that I possibly can,” Busch said. “Some people tell me that they think that’s hurting his development or slowing his development down in particular cars. And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, but he can go run against any kid in the country and run top-three everywhere we go in any vehicle that we run in.’

“I feel like that’s a Kyle Larson-type thing – where we’re not just focused on quarter midgets or outlaw karts. … The one thing that we’re a little bit short on right now is just the road course kart stuff that Keelan (Harvick) has been really high on.

“We haven’t done as much of that and Brexton keeps asking me about doing it, and why we haven’t done it. And I’m like, ‘Bro, there’s only so much time in the day.’ We’re pretty slammed as it is.”

Kevin Harvick’s son, Keelan, competes in go-karting overseas. It’s part of Harvick’s plan to prepare his son for the challenges of sport at the top levels.

“I think road racing is obviously really important as you go forward,” Kevin Harvick said. “I don’t see the number of road races becoming less.

“I believe in the foundation of getting those guys a good road racing platform to learn on and people to learn from. The oval racing is also needed, but there’s just much more to it with the wet, with the road courses and the changing short track system. … They just need to be versatile.

“Starting with the road race stuff just creates a great platform for them to be able to learn and be able to adapt and do things that are outside my comfort zone as far as wet and street courses and things like that because I didn’t do any of that.

“I think with these kids and I see it with Keenan a lot and Brent Crews (who is represented by Kevin Harvick Inc. and guided by Harvick), whether it’s wet or dry, they just shrug their shoulders and go because that’s what they do at every race they’ve ever gone to.”

Highlights: NASCAR Cup qualifying at Atlanta
Watch highlights from the NASCAR Cup Series qualifying session at Atlanta Motor Speedway ahead of the Quaker State 400.

The changes to the Cup schedule have been stark for today’s drivers.

Four years ago, the NASCAR Cup schedule sent teams to Chicagoland Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and Kentucky Speedway in late June and early July.

Two of those races are no longer on the Cup schedule. The third, Daytona, was moved to late August to be the regular-season finale.

They have been replaced by Nashville Superspeedway, the Chicago Street Race and a reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway, showing just how varied and challenging the Cup Series has become for drivers.

Seventeen different drivers have finished in the top 10 in the past two weeks at Nashville and Chicago. That figure is likely to increase with tonight’s race at Atlanta.

“There’s no doubt that it’s more difficult today than ever,” said Cup points leader Martin Truex Jr. “You have to be way more versatile. You have to be way more committed. We don’t get a lot of practice. We don’t get testing. We don’t do all these things we used to do. It’s all simulators and SMT and crew chief showing you data.

“It takes a lot of time. You have to invest a ton of time to be good. You have to be willing to learn, change and adapt. It’s part of what makes this sport so fun is that it’s always changing. It’s also what kind of taxes you when you’re doing 40 races a year and you’ve got to continually put in that every week. You’ve got to put in 110% or you’re not going to get out what you want. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a big challenge.”