Friday, January 28, 2011

New points system a nice compromise

After an offseason of rumors, NASCAR finally announced the new points system, and it’s actually the lesser of many evils.

The basic points structure has been totally wiped away in favor of a straight-forward system that gives 43 points, plus three bonus points, to the winner on down to just one point for the driver who comes in dead last.

However, of the changes that had been discussed, this system isn’t too bad. NASCAR didn’t expand the Chase to 15 drivers, put in an elimination-style format and implement whatever other ideas were thrown around in the last three months. Instead, the Chase will still have 12 drivers, except the final two spots will go to the drivers with the most wins who are between 10th and 20th in the points standings after the fall race at Richmond.

Sure, some teams in other sports have come into the playoffs through the wild card and won the championship, but it is much harder to do that in NASCAR. The two wild cards in NASCAR are rewarded by making the playoffs, and that’s where the benefits should end. Yes, Jaime McMurray ran well during the Chase last season, but he still wouldn’t have been a serious threat for the championship and whoever is in those spots this season probably won’t be either.

For years and years, NASCAR was similar to the old baseball system where the best team in each league played for the title at the end of the year — no playoffs. NASCAR’s Winston Cup points format was similar. The driver with the most points throughout the season won the championship.

Then NASCAR jumped into a playoff system in 2004 that radically changed the sport. All of a sudden 10 drivers had a shot at the championship with just 10 races left in the season instead the two or three, sometimes more, drivers who had any kind of realistic shot at that point in the season under the old format.

At least with this system NASCAR will still look similar to its recent past. Nobody is going to be willing to revert back to the original points format, but this latest version is a pretty good combination of several ideas. Winning races can now get a driver into the playoffs, even if they don’t run up front consistently each race. But, consistency still counts, which is important.

This time NASCAR could have completely cut ties with its past by restructuring how points were awarded after each race and created a one-race free-for-all where several drivers would be guaranteed a chance for the championship going into the final race. Thankfully, it didn’t and the final 10 races will still be similar to past years, the only change in that regard is how many points are talked about, because the percentages are similar. Now, 46 points will basically mean the same thing 190 points meant in the past.

While many people will continue to hate the Chase, just be glad NASCAR chose a bit of a middle ground instead of throwing a debris caution to the wind and completely changing the sport again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Preseason testing opens book on 2011 season

Preseason Thunder has come and passed, but it brought with it an early insight into Speedweeks, another suggestion about changes to the points format and great coverage by SPEED.

While not every team chose to partake in the three-day test at Daytona last week, there were still some trends that showed up. First, the two-car breakaway looks like it will be a factor throughout Speedweeks and for many Daytona races to come, until they change the restrictor-plate package. What does this suggest for February? A lot of really good racing.

With any aerodynamic package previously used at plate tracks that allowed cars to pull away from the pack, it was difficult for the rest of the field to catch up and overtake the leader. That certainly wasn’t the case last year at Talladega, where the cars had a very similar package. This time the field can catch back up, which accounted for the record-setting number of lead changes seen at the Talladega races in 2010.

Expect something similar this year at Daytona, but it could be even better. There might not be a record number of lead changes because the track at Daytona is narrower than Talladega, but that could just make the packs tighter.

This test was a great appetizer to make NASCAR fans’ mouths water for what is to come in the next four weeks.

Also, as expected, NASCAR made a couple of announcements Friday, on the second day of the test. They first confirmed that a driver will only be able to compete for a championship in one series, which eliminates the chance that another Cup regular will dominate the Nationwide Series in 2011. The other, more intriguing talk was about how the points will be tabulated after each race this season.

Lots of scenarios were thrown around early in the offseason, including a 15-car Chase field and an elimination-style playoff. NASCAR hasn’t yet said much about how the Chase will work, but it did hint the old way points were awarded for each race could change, possibly to a base setup where a driver is awarded one point for each position. For example, the winner would receive 43 points and the first start-and-parker would get one point. This excludes how bonus points would be awarded, but this could totally end the similarities between the Winston Cup-style points system and what the sport will now use.

But, is this a good change? The answer to that question will be debated for months and years to come, but it does sound like it could be the least of the possible evils that had been talked about.

Finally, SPEED’s coverage of the test session was excellent. Sure, there weren’t big drafting packs, but this was testing – not practice. However, the commentary from the entire SPEED on-air staff was terrific. They had time to discuss things that fans don’t get to hear during a regular weekend when so much other stuff is happening. Plus, the online streaming was an excellent idea. It’s not something they should do each weekend, but it is a huge step forward for events that previously received very little coverage.

Now it’s on to the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte next week where the final big announcements will be made, and then it’s time for some of the best weeks of the year for NASCAR fans. Two weeks of nothing but racing from Daytona.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

NASCAR mulls over qualifying changes

Changes to the sport are always discussed during the NASCAR offseason. Some ideas have merit, but others should never make it to the racetrack.

This is one such idea.

Last week, NASCAR said it is looking into changing how teams qualify for a race.
Several tracks have already moved Cup qualifying to Saturday before the Nationwide race, but NASCAR also might change how the qualifying order is set. Instead of a random draw each weekend, the order would be set by Friday’s practice speeds. NASCAR said it is still discussing the issue with teams, but this is one that could hurt the competitive balance of the sport each weekend.

As it is now, some teams with fast cars have to start in the middle of the pack because they had an early draw that forced them to qualify in less than ideal track and weather conditions. However, if the order is set by practice times, some teams will really work on qualifying in practice, which could hurt their performance on Sunday.

Teams that did work on long runs during practice would also be punished because they would have to go out early in qualifying. Finally, what about the Saturday morning qualifying sessions? Then a late draw is usually a disadvantage, so the cars with slow practice speeds would get the best conditions to qualify.

Sometimes luck-of-the-draw keeps things fun because anybody has a chance to be put in a position to succeed. If NASCAR wants to continue to try and run the little guy out of the sport, this is one way to help. Part of what makes the Budweiser Shootout fun is that it doesn’t have any qualifying and the starting grid is set entirely by a random draw.

Plus, if a driver gets lucky and happens to put up an unusually fast qualifying time but doesn’t have the car to stay there, such as Patrick Carpantier at New Hampshire in 2008, they fall back by the first pit stop anyway. Does it hurt the quality of the racing? No. If anything, it helps because the drivers with good cars have to work their way through the field and we get to watch comers and goers.

With this proposed new system, the goers would already be gone.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Most important days of 2011 season might be in January

Now that we can finally stop talking about 2011 and start living it, the time for NASCAR to make some of its most important decisions of the season is less than two weeks away.

The second round of testing will begin Jan. 20 at Daytona, and this time all of the teams will participate in three days of drafting in the large packs that will be a staple of the 2011 Daytona 500.

While the teams focus in on how to get their cars set up for the biggest race of the year on the new pavement at Daytona, the heads of NASCAR will announce the final few important decisions left before the season can start, including what method the sport will use to crown its champion in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series, what time the races will start and what size the restrictor plates will be when everybody returns for Speedweeks in February.

The announcement about the possible changes to the Chase is scheduled for Jan. 21, but one can expect a variety of tidbits to come out of that session. For the first time in three years, there actually is testing at Daytona in January, but rarely, if ever, has that test session been as anticipated as it is this year. Not only will cars be back on the track, which eases every fans heart that life isn’t so bad and there is something to hope for in the coming weeks, but the news will be flying from the speedway as fast as a full 43-car drafting pack.

Last year this moment came during the NASCAR media days in Charlotte when NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton told the boys to “have at it.” This year that type of moment will likely happen in Daytona when the big announcements are made for the 2011 season.

How much impact will these announcements have? They might make Jan. 21 the most important day of the 2011 NASCAR season. Whatever NASCAR says that day could shape the sport and its fan base for the next 11 months. In every decision, some people will love it and others will hate it, but it’s not too often that one could polarize a sport to such an extreme.

The interesting thing about these announcements is they will affect everybody involved in the sport from the owners to the drivers to the fans to pit crews, etc. Most of the time announcements made during the season that come from one team or another affect one or two drivers, teams and their fans, but when NASCAR holds court, everybody’s season is at stake.

If changes are made to both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series, they could effectively determine who has the best chance to win the championship, or at least in the Nationwide series who won’t win the championship.

Finally, although it’s extremely unlikely, no major changes could be made to the sport for this upcoming season. Last season came down to the closest battle in the short history of the Chase and anyone who cared about the sport was excited for the final two months of the season and couldn’t wait for the next race to start.

However, Brian France hasn’t been known to hold back from making drastic changes in the past, so a statement Jan. 21 that everything will remain status quo is unlikely.

In any case, the intrigue for the new season will start before the calendar has a chance to turn the first page.