One race down, 35 to go in the NASCAR season.
It seems like just yesterday Jimmie Johnson and Co. were tossing champagne and eating Domino’s pizza at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But that is already three months in the past; the 2017 season is underway.
Kurt Busch, with that Daytona 500 victory is the first driver to lock himself into the playoffs, barring any out-of-this-world circumstances. Busch’s first trophy in the Great American Race comes in his 17th full-time season in the sport’s premier division. With the hot start, he looks to keep up the pace and earn bonus points for being the regular season champion.
As the NASCAR realm adjusts to the major changes made over the offseason, it will take some time to get used to, and understandably so. Already, fans are wondering about certain rule changes, specifically about the ones surrounding drivers who have banged-up race cars.
Some fans like these adjustments. But others are truly against them.
Q: Why isn’t there an on-screen clock for the five-minute timer? – @TheSAFERbarrier
A: Let’s start with explaining what the five-minute clock is.
NASCAR is used to seeing wrecked cars on the track. It happens in every division, starting at the Home Tracks level and moving up through the ladder. But after decades of seeing beat-up vehicles spewing debris all over, it is time for a change. In doing so, the sanctioning body made an interesting choice, forcing teams to have five minutes maximum to repair their cars on pit road. If the time runs out, they have to go to the garage and take a DNF.
But the fact you point out is very interesting, FOX did not have a clock to indicate how much time teams spent on pit road after getting into accidents this past weekend at Daytona International Speedway. That’s in contrast to the many running stopwatches crew chiefs were using on pit road to track timing, making sure they got back out before NASCAR put them out of the race.
Believe it or not, having the clock available for fans watching the broadcast or at the track is something that NASCAR is working on with the networks. Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer, talked about the topic on The Morning Drive Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
An ideal situation would be to either have a small box at one of the bottom corners of the screen, a timer that shows how much time a car is spending on pit road, or have the time pop up next to the driver’s name in the actual leaderboard, highlighting that driver in a different color. That’s similar to what FOX did by highlighting segment winners during each of the weekend’s races.
FOX should strongly consider this adjustment, especially since the remaining races in its schedule — besides Talladega Superspeedway of course — will not have as many wounded cars. Daytona saw 92 of 112 cars involved in wrecks, with 43 drivers having their end result marked as crash, according to Athlon Sports’ Geoffrey Miller.
Q: Who will win the regular season championship in the Cup Series? – @DevMattera
A: It’s a little early for predictions, but hey, why not start now?
Each of the past two seasons, Kevin Harvick led the regular season standings before the playoffs began by 42 and 43 points, respectively. (Note that it isn’t called the Chase anymore since Monster came on board.)
The 2014 Cup Series champion failed to stand on the podium come Homestead in both of those years, although he advanced to the final round of the playoffs in 2015. However, after dominating the regular season points last year, he was kicked out of the playoffs in Round 3.
At the time, there was no benefit for being the regular season champion other than bragging rights and having some momentum heading into the final stretch of the season. But that is no longer the case.
Over the offseason, NASCAR announced it would not only have in-race bonus points for drivers who perform well, but it will also give the regular season leader a bonus, too. The regular season points champion, along with those in the top 10 in the standings, will now have anywhere from 15 down to one additional playoff points given to their total. That’s paired with any playoff points that driver receives from winning stages or races throughout the season.
With the additional reward to win the regular season championship, NASCAR can expect an added level of competition heading into the playoffs.
While Harvick should be just as strong this year, the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski will certainly be as consistent as anyone in the garage area. Logano starts the season by signing a seven-year extension with the organization, and Keselowski will likely soon follow, team owner Roger Penske said at Daytona. The pair had a combined five wins and 21 top fives before the playoffs began last year, with Logano finishing runner-up in the championship to Johnson.
One driver, in my opinion sitting in the shadows who could have a stellar season is Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished fifth in the regular season standings last year and eighth in 2015.
Another driver who signed an extension entering the weekend of the Daytona 500, Hamlin should be a title threat this year, alongside his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. There is simply something different about his mentality entering 2017.
With confidence from team owner Joe Gibbs and longtime sponsor FedEx, both of whom advocated for Hamlin to continue on as their driver for multiple seasons, that has translated to Hamlin himself. There is no reason, considering Toyota’s continued strength why 2017 will not be one of the best years he will have in his career.
Of course, expecting his second child with girlfriend Jordan Fish certainly doesn’t hurt his confidence either.
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