It has been said in the past, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The problem is that, with declining attendance at auto races and declining ratings on television, auto racing is, for lack of a better word, broken. Early indications for 2014 show that there is a general uptick in interest in various forms of automotive competition, as shown by the larger than average viewership for the Rolex 24 at Daytona as well as the large crowds at the PRO Winter Warm-up for the NHRA.
However, these may simply by a one-time thing, and only time will tell if the paying customers show up at the racetrack. As Darrell Waltrip said in the past, it doesn't matter what they do to change things if no one is in the stands to see it. NASCAR has seen the handwriting on the wall, and is implementing sweeping changes to take effect for the 2014 season. The third part of my silly season installment includes a breakdown of some of the rules changes that have taken place in the offseason, and how they may or may not affect competition both on and off the track.
In a move aimed toward enhancing the fan experience watching at the track and at home, NASCAR has announced a new group qualifying format for its three national series that is more compelling, more closely emulates actual on-track competition and underlines the sport’s on-going commitment to innovation.
At tracks measuring 1.25 miles in length or larger, qualifying for the Coors Light Pole Award will consist of three rounds. The first qualifying elimination round will be 25 minutes in duration and includes all cars / trucks. The 24 cars / trucks that post the fastest single lap from the first qualifying round will advance to the second round. The remaining cars / trucks will be sorted based on their times posted in the first round of qualifying in descending order. The second qualifying elimination round will be 10 minutes in duration and the 12 cars / trucks that post the fastest single lap time will advance to the third and final round. The fastest remaining cars / trucks earn positions 13th through 24th based on their times posted in qualifying in descending order. The third and final qualifying round will be five minutes in duration and the fastest single lap time will determine positions 1st through 12th in descending order. There will be a five-minute break between each qualifying round.
At tracks measuring less than 1.25 miles, qualifying for the Coors Light Pole Award will consist of two rounds. The first qualifying elimination round will be 30 minutes in duration and includes all cars / trucks. The 12 cars / trucks that post the fastest single lap time from the first qualifying round will advance to the second and final round. The remaining cars / trucks will be sorted based on their times posted in the first round of qualifying in descending order. There will be a 10-minute break between the two qualifying rounds. The second and final qualifying round will be 10 minutes in duration and the fastest single lap time posted will determine positions 1st through 12th in descending order.
The new qualifying format does not apply to the Daytona 500, which will preserve its historic and unique qualifying format. Additionally, it does not apply to non-points NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events or the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora Speedway.
“We believe the timing is right for a new qualifying format across our three national series,” said Robin Pemberton, vice president for competition and racing development. “This style of group qualifying has all the makings of being highly competitive and more engaging to our fans in the stands and those watching on television and online. For the drivers and teams, we believe this new qualifying will fuel even greater competition leading into the events. Additionally, it provides our tracks, broadcasters and other key partners with a greater opportunity to develop more entertaining content for our race weekends.”
In addition to the new qualifying procedure, NASCAR has also announced a new championship format that puts greater emphasis on winning, expands the current Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field to 16 drivers, and implements a new round-by-round advancement format that ultimately will reward a battle-tested, worthy champion.
“We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter even more, diminishes points racing, puts a premium on winning races and concludes with a best-of-the-best, first-to-the-finish line showdown race – all of which is exactly what fans want,” said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO. “We have looked at a number of concepts for the last three years through fan research, models and simulations, and also maintained extensive dialogue with our drivers, teams and partners. The new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be thrilling, easy to understand and help drive our sport’s competition to a whole new level.”
With the new format, a victory in the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. As the NASCAR Chase moves forward, the number of championship drivers in contention for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will decrease after every three Chase races, from 16 to start in the Chase Grid, 12 after Chase race No. 3, eight after Chase race No. 6, and four after Chase race No. 9. A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next Chase round.
The first three races of the Chase (27-29) will be known as the Challenger Round; races 30-32 will be known as the Contender Round; races 33-35 will be the Eliminator Round and race No. 36 will be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. Four drivers will enter the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship with a chance at the title, with the highest finisher among those four capturing the prestigious NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Bonus points for laps led will not apply in the season finale, so the official finishing position alone will decide the champion.
The top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will earn a spot in the NASCAR Chase Grid – provided they have finished in the top 30 in points and attempted to qualify for every race (except in rare instances). The 16th Chase position will go to the points leader after race No. 26, if he/she does not have a victory. In the event that there are 16 or more different winners over 26 races, the only winless driver who can earn a Chase Grid spot would be the points leader after 26 races.
If there are fewer than 16 different winners in the first 26 races, the remaining Chase Grid positions will go to those winless drivers highest in points. If there are 16 or more winners in the first 26 races, the ties will first be broken by number of wins, followed by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver points.
As was implemented in 2011, prior to the start of the Chase, all Chase Grid drivers will have their points adjusted to 2,000, with three additional bonus points added to their total for each win in the first 26 races.
Additionally, drivers who are eliminated in the Contender and Eliminator Rounds will have their points readjusted. Each eliminated driver will return to the Chase-start base of 2,000 (plus any regular season wins bonus points), with their accumulated points starting with race No. 27 added. This will allow all drivers not in contention for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title to continue to race for the best possible season-long standing, with final positions fifth-through-16th still up for grabs.
“We’re extremely pleased that NASCAR has chosen to implement this format," stated Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president, league sports programming. "We have long felt that there was a greater opportunity within the Chase and are in favor of an elimination format, which has beenmost effective in American sports. We look forward to bringing the Chase to NASCAR fans this fall.”
Of course, winning points and races are not the only ways to become a champion. You also have to be able to play by the rules set down by NASCAR, and violations of those rules must have consequences. As part of its wide-ranging initiatives to transform its competition model, NASCAR recently enhanced its penalty structure and appeals process beginning in 2014.
“NASCAR’s Deterrence System is designed to help maintain the integrity and competitive balance of our sport while sending a clear message that rules violations will not be tolerated,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president of racing operations. “This is a more transparent and effective model that specifically spells out that ‘X’ infraction equals ‘X’ penalty for technical infractions.
In addition to these changes, NASCAR also announced the appointment of a Final Appeals Officer for the sport.
“At the same time, we believe the Appeals process allows a fair opportunity for our NASCAR Members to be heard, and have penalty disputes resolved by an impartial, relevant group of people with the ability to handle the complexities inherent in any appeal," O'Donnell continued. "This system has been tailored specifically to fit the needs of our sport.”
Bryan Moss, former president at Gulfstream Aerospace, has been selected as the Final Appeals Officer. Moss will hear matters on appeal from the lower three-member Appeals Panel, and serve as the last decision on penalty disputes for the sport.
The 2014 Rule Book will explain how and why NASCAR issues penalties as well as the factors considered when determining a penalty. The Rule Book also will detail the types of infractions that fall within each level.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opens with the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Feb. 23. The race will be televised live on FOX at 1 p.m. ET. The cars will also be on track throughout the "SpeedWeeks" leading up to the "Great American Race," including the Budweiser Duels qualifying races, which will be televised live on Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.
Over the next couple weeks, this column will strive to provide full coverage of the events leading up to the Great American Race at the end of February, including an interview with perennial contender David Ragan, as well as a few moments with one of the most awesome, and probably off-the-wall drivers to ever put on a driving suit; Kenny Wallace!
Be sure to subscribe to the West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner, and keep track of your favorite racers, no matter how many (or how few) wheels they may or may not race on. If you're a motorsports fan, and know of an event, team, or person you'd like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about local getaways, HOAs, elections, and restaurants.