Raise your hand if NASCAR’s announcement on Monday left you a little shocked and confused.
Oh, good, so it’s not just me.
Segmented races? Championship points? Playoff points? It’s enough to make you wring your hands in despair.
It’s certainly going to take some time to digest and learn who gets points for what and when. Already, strong feelings have been expressed on social media, ranging from anger to delight to confusion.
Still, there are still questions to be answered. Former driver and current analyst Jeff Burton admitted that there are situations that will come up that couldn’t have been planned for, and those will require quick thinking. There are a lot of terms floating around that fans will need to learn.
If you’re a fan of keeping things simple, this change will take an adjustment, because while it’s many things, simple isn’t one of them.
But it does have the potential to be exciting.
Here’s where my longtime readers will probably pass out from shock: the better I understand this, the more I think I actually like it.
Yes, it’s a manipulation of cautions, but two at set intervals are a better alternative than the caution clock NASCAR tried in the Camping World Truck Series, which teams were not fond of, and if we see fewer cautions for phantom debris, I don’t think you’ll see many fans complaining about that.
On paper, at least, there’s potential for more excitement each race. Will it make every driver race like it’s the last lap, every lap? No, and I don’t think there’s any way to do that. What it will do is make anyone with a chance at a stage win race for it. It will create pit strategy, since pitting is not required between stages, so you will see teams short pitting and gambling while others play it safe.
There’s also a ton to gain for the teams on the playoff bubble. With an extra 20 points on the line, suddenly a top 15 isn’t good enough; they’ll be looking for a piece of the pie too.
Think of this like the three-point line in basketball: It adds strategy and more opportunity for a game-changing moment, but it doesn’t really change the game. And that’s good. Does it manipulate the game? Yes, it does. But it doesn’t ultimately change the fact that teams will have to race several hundred miles to win. It just gives them more ways to try and get there.
The key, though, is that while the playoff system is still in place, season-long excellence is suddenly much more important. A driver can now earn enough playoff points during the regular season to overcome a bad race in the final 10. That’s huge.
Because the bonus will carry through all but the final round, it will assure the best drivers for the season a fighting chance if they have a crash or other issue. And it also makes a situation like we saw a couple of years ago between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth less likely to end a worthy title bid. Giving the best driver all season a better chance at a title bid at Homestead-Miami Speedway adds legitimacy to the playoff format.
If all the different points confused you, here it is in a nutshell as it pertains to the playoffs. The playoff system (it’s no longer called the Chase) is largely unchanged, as is how drivers qualify. What does change is how bonus points – now called playoff points – will be awarded. Gone is the single marker for leading a lap or leading the most laps. Instead, the winners of the first two stages get one playoff point and the race winner gets five.
So let’s say a driver wins three races and five stages in the first 26 races. That’s 20 playoff points going into the final 10.
But wait, there’s more. If that same driver accumulates the most points in the regular season, there’s actually a reward for that now. Add another 15 points, making that total 35. Once the standings are reset after Richmond International Raceway in the 26th race of the season, those points are added to the total, so they’ll have a sizable lead.
And it’s still not over. Just for fun, a win at Chicagoland Speedway and leading the first two stages at New Hampshire Motor Speedway mean that driver is locked into the next round, but when points are reset, those playoff points – now up to 42 – carry over to round two. In round two, after three stage wins and a 30th in the last race after an unfortunate accident, suddenly the 45 points could be what saves the season. It’s far from a guarantee , but there’s a fighting chance.
In the last race, drivers are on their own, but at least they’re in the last race, where they may not have been after that crash the year before.
In the last couple of years, the best drivers all year didn’t necessarily get the chance to compete for the title at Homestead, which made it seem hollow, but the new system could change that for the better.
And really, at the end of the day, what’s unlikely to change is the fundamental way viewers watch a race. The guaranteed cautions leave a sour taste, as does counting those laps. But there will be more strategy. Come in at the predetermined yellow at the 25 percent and 50 percent marks of each race? That’s well over a fuel run anyway, so at least one stop will have already happened. Short pit and gamble that track position will get you a few more points when all is said and done? It’s likely the pits will be closed for a handful of laps before the yellow, but not so many that teams can’t play the strategy card.
Still, a 500-mile race is a 500-mile race. It will take about the same amount of time to run; there will just be more sidebars to keep an eye on as the race goes on. It doesn’t cheapen the title or the race wins, which has long been a sticking point with the playoff system.
It’s not your grandpa’s NASCAR, but this time, it should be worth watching.
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