It might seem like just yesterday that the checkered flag came out at Homestead, but another NASCAR season is already gearing up this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, where Daytona 500 practice starts Saturday and 25 teams take the track Saturday night for the pre-season Sprint Unlimited.
It’s certainly been an eventful offseason, too. With all that went down from caution clocks to charters, here are some odds and ends as we wade into 2016.
So, there’s a caution countdown clock now.
At least it’s only in the Truck Series (for now, though I fear that that’s just an experiment). NASCAR says it’s to let inexperienced teams have time to work on their trucks under caution. It certainly looks more like a blatant attempt to have built-in debris cautions without having to throw a debris caution and risk the ridicule of fans who know better. In other words, it’s an attempt to tighten up the field and create more crashes, cautions and restarts. Remember, cautions breed cautions, and apparently someone in Daytona thinks a wreckfest (or a bunch of cautions that virtually eliminate the need for green flag pit stops and any related strategy) is preferable to authentic racing, where the participants sometimes get spread out over the course of more than a hundred miles. The Truck Series is about learning, and learning how to execute live pit stops under green seems like it might be an important skill to have….
Oh, and something called an “overtime line.”
This is the new green-white-checkered rule: if the field makes it to the predetermined (but as of yet undisclosed) overtime line and the caution comes out, the race is over. If they don’t, they’ll re-rack as many times as necessary until they do make it to the line intact. Didn’t the start-finish line serve the same purpose in a less confusing manner? And where will this line be? Shame on NASCAR if it’s somewhere like turn 1.
The Sprint Unlimited field is a little weak, but…
It’s actually kind of odd. The field for the Unlimited is set at a minimum of 25 entries, and the ways to be eligible are many: pole inners from the previous season, former winners of the Unlimited (or previous incarnations), former Daytona 500 pole winners, or Chase drivers from the previous year are all automatically in. If there aren’t 25 drivers in that mix, the rest are added by points from the previous season, until the filed is at 25. All but five of this year’s eligible drivers met the above criteria. Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson qualified on 2015 points. Casey Mears replaces the retired Jeff Gordon based on his 2015 standing. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. also got in on points when Tony Stewart was injured (I haven’t heard word that he’ll be discounted now that the No. 14 makes the field, and he’d be the next in line to replace a rideless David Gilliland anyway), and Brian Vickers was a late addition after NASCAR determined that Stewart’s No. 14 was indeed eligible. On first glance, the field looks a bit weak at the back, but look a little deeper at some of the “field fillers.” Almirola is a 2014 Daytona winner. Larson is still a rising star. Mears, who finished fourth in the event last year, is one of the best plate racers in the game. Vickers has a win at Talladega. While there are a couple of weaker links, this isn’t the watered-down field some people think it is.
Those charters, though…
As I said on Wednesday, the charter system is good for the sport…really good. It will help teams grow and build futures in the sport. It’s better for the racing to have the teams already in it improve and get more competitive than to have a bunch of new teams come in and run as backmarkers for a couple of years before fading away. Dropping the field to 40…not really a big deal; when was the last time those last three cars were really competitive anyway? The mergers and consolidations that happened to pare down the field will only strengthen those teams. It’s not perfect, and that Wood Brothers Racing didn’t get a charter is an embarrassment to the sport (I’d have liked to see organizations limited to three initial charters), but it strengthens a foundation that was showing some definite signs of wear in recent years.
The good thing about restrictor-plate racing (possibly the only good thing about restrictor-plate racing) is that because the racecars themselves are equalized, the races showcase drivers. Plate racing is a skill, and some drivers that you wouldn’t look at twice on many other tracks shine at Daytona and Talladega. Four times a year, someone different has a legit shot of winning a race, and that’s good for the sport. Looking for a few different names to watch during speedweeks? Try David Ragan, David Gilliland, and Casey Mears. All three are exceptional plate drivers and fun to watch work the draft on the big tracks.
New era dawning
NASCAR heads to Daytona without a pair of surefire Hall of Famers, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Gordon retired after last season with 93 career wins; Stewart was slated to run the 2016 season before calling it a career with 48 wins to date, but a back fracture in the offseason sidelines Stewart, at least for several weeks. With fewer drivers choosing to extend their careers to 50 and beyond, the sport is likely to have a different landscape in the next five years or so. Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will be 41 this year, his chances for a record-tying seventh title fading. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is no longer a promising kid. Matt Kenseth turns 44 next month.
Meanwhile, there are many promising youngsters already on the rise in the sport: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Landon Cassill and Matt DiBenedetto are just a few drivers with potential to go as far as the sport will take them. Others already at the top of their game are relatively young: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and Brad Keselowski had a list of title winners and contenders who have many years left in the game.
It’s an exciting time for the sport with so much talent waiting in the wings, but it is bittersweet as the drivers today’s fans grew into the sport with fade into the sunset (and for some, the Hall of Fame).
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