Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. high-fives team owners Rob Kauffman and Michael Waltrip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jeff Burton driving for Rob Kauffman?
Martin Truex Jr. driving for Barney Visser?
In Chevys or Toyotas?
What's up with the Mother's Day weekend Southern 500? Did NASCAR really consider moving the legendary race next season to the old Rockingham date, the week after the opening Daytona 500?
And what the heck really went on with tires last weekend in the Kansas 400?
It's been a busy week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and not just out on the track, where Jeff Gordon -- the 13th man in NASCAR's championship chase -- appears on the charge for Saturday night's 500. Gordon is on the pole for the 7:30 p.m. ET start.
Hope you've been making those 2014 NASCAR vacation notes in pencil.
"We were told there'd be no changes," Atlanta promoter Ed Clark was saying Friday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway....before being handed two press releases, from Darlington Raceway and Kansas Speedway, about new Sprint Cup weekend dates for next season.
For the past six weeks or so the official 2014 Cup calendar has remained generally under wraps somewhere and under considerable speculation in the stock car garage. Much earlier this season NASCAR CEO Brian France pretty much said he wouldn't be making changes to the 2014 tour schedule. However his July deal with NBC, a multi-billion-dollar blockbuster, apparently changed that, with NBC looking for some moves to spark things up.
And for the past several weeks there has been fevered speculation about what changes could be under consideration.
Then last Saturday afternoon NASCAR executives pulled the plug on NBC's hopes to take over the second half of the 2014 tour from ESPN/Disney/ABC and Turner's TNT.
Now just as it was looking like back to business as usual, the Kansas-Darlington swap comes up.
Darlington's spring Southern 500, which has played quite successfully on Mother's Day weekend Saturdays since 2005, is being moved to early April, Saturday night the 12th.
And Kansas' spring 400, which was April 21st this season, is taking that Mother's Day slot, May 10th, 2014.
According to people familiar with the situation, NASCAR had first floated the idea of moving Darlington's Southern 500 -- once the sport's Labor Day weekend classic -- to the second race of the season, which in 2014 would be March 2, right after Daytona. The weather that particular weekend would be iffy, just as the Rockingham 500 was for so many years, sunny but very cold. Some veterans in this sport can still remember the smell of those ancient kerosene smudge pots, heaters brought in from the nearby peach fields.
Darlington Raceway is about an hour south of Rockingham.
For several years NASCAR had California's Auto Club Speedway, near Los Angeles, as the tour's second race, in late February. The past three seasons Phoenix has been the sport's second event.
When Phoenix got a second Cup weekend in the sport's 2005 shakeup, the date picked was late April, under the lights.
If NASCAR moved Darlington's 500 to the second race of the season, that would have opened up that April weekend again for Phoenix. That particular time of year has fine weather in Phoenix but not so much in Kansas City, where this year that weekend featured temperatures near freezing overnight.
The legendary Southern 500, pushed to a new weekend. And what about all those tickets already sold? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Man, it's a scramble to sell tickets these days, and you sell 'em whenever you can, and we're really scrambling to sell our Labor Day race," Clark said while reading the Darlington-Kansas announcements. "To have a spring race like that, wow, that's even less time to work in."
In an odd situation -- showing perhaps the frantic behind-the-scenes scrambling -- Darlington Raceway has been selling Southern 500 Mother's Day 2014 tickets for months. And now the race date has been suddenly changed.
The Kansas-Darlington moves come amid reports of a general shakeup of some sort behind the scenes at the France family's International Speedway Corp. (ISC).
Last month there were indications that the ISC was looking to swap Darlington/Mother's Day for Atlanta/Labor Day. But Clark and his boss Bruton Smith firmly shot down that idea. Clark says he likes Labor Day weekend much better than Mother's Day weekend as a race promoter.
Kansas Speedway Friday also confirmed Oct. 5th for its fall 2014 Sprint Cup 400.
However NASCAR itself still hasn't released the full 2014 calendar.
ISC's Lesa France Kennedy's new project, Daytona Rising, may need a longer construction window in 2014. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The most interesting speculation about NASCAR 2014 is about the championship finale, which has been held at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 2002, after Atlanta gave up its long-time role as the final event of the season.
NASCAR has been renegotiating with Ford for its 'Ford championship weekend' at Homestead. Ford officials say they like that marketing promotion and would like to continue. However one Ford source says he senses NASCAR "wants to get Ford off that thing," apparently either to sign a more lucrative sponsorship or to move the season finale to another track. Phoenix was first mentioned, with a major capital improvements project planned there, to raise it to 'championship caliber.'
Just this week, though, another possibility was raised -- that Daytona itself might be in the running for the final race. The thinking here is that Daytona's huge $400 million reconstruction project, set for completion in early 2016, might require a longer construction window in 2014 than just the usual four months between the February Daytona 500 and the July Fourth Daytona 400. Moving Daytona's 400 to the November slot would give an eight-month construction window.
If you want to keep up with the Daytona project, here's a live cam site: DaytonaRisingWebCam
Atlanta boss Ed Clark: selling tickets is a year-round job (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Darlington, when it had two Cup weekends, used to play host to the spring tour in mid-April. Kansas' spring 400 this year was in April in frigid weather, almost demanding a change in Cup dates.
Chip Wile, Darlington's new track president, points to weather and Easter break as two reasons for the new move:
"We've always enjoyed the tradition of racing on Mother's Day weekend, but sometimes a change like this is necessary. We have the opportunity to get a fresh start and embrace a new date on the NASCAR calendar.
"With hotter temperatures and humidity in South Carolina in May, weather has always played a factor for our events. Traditionally April is a great weather month in our state and will potentially bring slightly cooler temperatures for our fans to enjoy."
Spring break, Wile says, is also a factor: "College students always enjoy the atmosphere we provide, but it could be sometimes tough for them to attend in May with finals and graduations. An April date gives us a better opportunity to focus our efforts on the experience we can deliver them."
Rob Kauffman (L), getting some words of NASCAR wisdom from Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile the sport continues to await some word from Rob Kauffman about the Michael Waltrip Richmond controversy.
Kauffman, 49, is Waltrip's business partner, joining in late 2007. Kauffman's primary business is as a private equity investment manager, with his Fortress Investment Group, with some $17 billion (B) under management. Kauffman himself is listed by Forbes as one of the world's top billionaires.
Now comes word from people close to the situation that Kauffman may be planning to separate himself officially from Waltrip's racing operations and establish his own NASCAR team. Kauffman's pick for his driver, again, according to people familiar with it all, is Jeff Burton.
Burton says he's got a driving deal for 2014 but says he can't say anything more than that right now.
Burton currently drives for Richard Childress' Chevy team; if Kauffman does do his own team, it would most like be with Toyota.
A spokesman for Waltrip and Kauffman says he is unfamiliar with such a Kauffman-Burton scenario.
In related news, a spokesman for the Barney Visser-Todd Berrier Chevy operation says the team is "very hopeful" of signing Martin Truex Jr. to a contract for 2014.
Truex was victim of the Richmond controversy, first making the championship playoffs in a hard stretch charge...only to be bounced out of the chase in the wake of the Clint Bowyer-Brian Vickers flap.
Not only did Truex get booted from the playoffs for no fault of his own, his sponsor NAPA is pulling the plug at the end of the season over the controversy. That has many Waltrip people quite worried about their own jobs for next season.
Jeff Burton, helping dig up Daytona for that multi-million-dollar make-over (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)