The Monster Energy Cup Series season is just a couple weeks away from kicking off at Daytona. As the anticipation begins to build, an offseason full of changes culminates. Officials announced a new race format last week that has some scratching their heads. However, a general optimism seems to be the consensus.
In the other major winter storyline, Carl Edwards shockingly announced his abrupt retirement from NASCAR in January, leaving a gaping hole in Joe Gibbs Racing. With all due respect to his replacement, 2016 Xfinity Series Champion Daniel Suarez, making up for Edwards 28 career wins and 220 top tens since 2004 will not be an easy hole to plug. His two runner up finishes in the point standings make Edwards one of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport to never win a title.
That was what everyone in the series was continuing to talk about – until January 23. Members of the NASCAR’s administration and driver council announced the format change to races and the points system.
Races are now broken up into three segments. Look for these “stages” to generally take up one quarter, one quarter, and a half. For example, a 500 lap race at Martinsville Speedway is expected to be divided into two 125 lap segments to begin the race, and a 250 lap segment to conclude. The idea is a win-win for everyone. Segment racing eliminates the long, sometimes trite green flag runs to open up a race, in which many fans throw in the towel early due to lack of action. Fans are now guaranteed at least two restarts at some point during the race. It also opens up strategy for crew chiefs, and perhaps can reward or penalize a risky gamble. Either way, intrigue is added, but there is still an element of endurance toward the end of the race, where fuel mileage and long runs on old tires can still affect an outcome.
Additionally, network executives at FOX and NBC are guaranteed commercial breaks at specific times during the event, almost like a media timeout in football or basketball. Fans get the break they want, and the subsequent restart, while networks pay some bills and can sell ad space at the compelling points in an event.
And yes, the championship race is affected by this. NASCAR will reward points to the top ten drivers at the end of every stage, and similar to the past, base the final points on the finishing order of the entire field. The winner will receive 40 points, while second garners 35, third 34, and so on until 35th. 36th through 40th earn one point. Meanwhile, bonus points for leading laps are a thing of the past.
Just like the last several years, winning a race virtually guarantees a playoff spot. However, the new format rewards consistency over the entire regular season. Playoff points are earned from February until September, so if a driver wins a race early, he or she wants to continue to win to build playoff points, which carry over. In the past, points are completely reset once the playoff starts.
As a fan, it does lead to questions. Will I be able to keep up with the numbers? Maybe not always, but FOX, NBC, and of course, the web will do that for us.
Will I hate segment racing and the starting and stopping? That’s a possibility, but more fans complain about long green-flag runs than races with a lot of cautions for accidents. The segments are essentially competition cautions that reset the field. If anything, that should be exciting.
Will having mid-race incentives cause more accidents in the early stages? That’s a valid concern. Nobody wants their favorite driver eliminated on lap 100 of 400 while trying for an extra point on a race segment. Races can certainly be lost early. But so can football games with turnovers, or going for a 4th down conversion early to be aggressive. The possibility for disaster exists, but in the end, isn’t that more of a reason to watch?
At the end of the day, NASCAR just wants their fans to be open-minded to something different, because the change is 100 percent for them. Let’s just give it a try, and see how it plays out.
..Chad Parries is a teacher at Craig County High School, a former journalist and big NASCAR fan