With only one week left before the 2017 Daytona 500, drivers and teams of the newly-renamed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series are making final preparations for the biggest race of the year.
Daytona International Speedway presents a challenge unlike most tracks in NASCAR. The nature of pack racing in close quarters at 200 mph, leaving s a lot of variables outside of the drivers’ hands. Nevertheless, it is crucial that each team puts their best foot forward. Racing always involves luck, but finding the right combination of speed, handling and strategy will set teams up for a strong performance next week.
Joey Logano and Team Penske struck first, mounting a late-race charge to win the rain-delayed Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona early Sunday afternoon. Later on, Chase Elliott captured his second-consecutive pole for the Great American Race, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting alongside.
Assuming Elliott and Earnhardt can keep their cars in one piece through Thursday night’s Can-Am duels, they will lead the field to the green flag next week.
The teams’ quest to find a winning combination for Daytona is much like NASCAR’s challenge to make 2017 a successful season. Has the sanctioning body finally found the right combination of sponsors, rules and championship system to pump new life into the sport?
Ever since 2004, when NASCAR first debuted a postseason championship format, none of those formats lasted more than four seasons without some revisions. The current championship rules, featuring points awarded for race segments, playoff points that drivers carry through the different rounds of the postseason and the elimination procedures from the last few years, make up the fifth version of what was formerly known as the Chase.
Each time NASCAR has altered the championship format, the sport’s leaders have extolled the virtues of their new design. The 2017 changes are no exception. According to Brian France, these are the conditions that will make NASCAR more exciting.
The partnership with Monster Energy is another big change for 2017. Despite the fact that France and his associates had been staunch defenders of the Chase, it is not that surprising to see the name go away. No doubt that Monster wanted to put its own unique stamp on NASCAR’s top division, just as Nextel and Sprint had the opportunity to do.
The energy drink brand is no stranger to sponsoring forms of motor sports, so fans have a reason to be optimistic that Monster will go all out in its efforts to promote its relationship with NASCAR. However, the true measure of how successful the NASCAR-Monster alliance will be measured in the long term.
The effects of dividing races into segments and awarding points mid-race will be another process to watch over the long term. At Daytona, there is a strong possibility that the end of a segment will trigger a big crash, as drivers scramble to position themselves in the top 10. There is also the potential on any race weekend for a driver to win a pair of segments and finish in the back half of the top 10, resulting in more points than the race winner.
Throw in the accumulation of playoff points, and the methods by which drivers earn points look considerably different than a year ago. When NASCAR restructured its points system in 2011, it was ostensibly to make point totals simpler for fans to calculate. The push to make drivers race harder appears to have cost the points system that simplicity.
Will 2017 really be a new era for NASCAR?
Some of the names on the cars have changed in the last few months. While there is some driver turnover every season, this year’s Daytona 500 will not include, among others, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards or Greg Biffle. Indeed, new names and new rules will be on the minds of fans as the season gets going.
That said, all the changes and new things in NASCAR can be linked back to the same old problem. For the better part of 10 years, race attendance figures and TV ratings have been declining. The reality that NASCAR has been unable to return to its peak popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s has hung over the sport like a black cloud. It influenced the TV deals that NASCAR negotiated in 2014. It had to have influenced NASCAR’s search for an entitlement sponsor, which dragged on far longer than the sanctioning body intended. But France has always been the optimist, insisting that better days are on the horizon, thanks to whatever is new in NASCAR at the start of each year.
In 2017, there is a lot to keep an eye on for the long term. Will the combination of sponsorship from Monster, race segments, and a revamped postseason generate more excitement for NASCAR? If so, then the sport’s decade-old problem could be solved. Otherwise, expect postseason version 6.0 unveiled before the 2020 or 2021 season begins, and the assurances from the sanctioning body that, this time, they have it right.
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