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Ten Interesting Takeaways from NASCAR’s 2017 Format Changes
- Updated: January 24, 2017
By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor
After much anticipation, NASCAR’s new championship format for its top three touring series has been revealed, and as many of you know by now, it’s a doozie.
At the request of many of the sport’s fans, NASCAR announced a new set of rules Monday that will cut races into segments, remove wrecked race cars from the track and reward regular-season success with heightened playoff odds.
While most are still attempting to make sense of terms like ‘segments’ and ‘playoff points’, Kickin’ the Tires’ has taken a look further in an attempt to lay out some of the intricacies of the new playoff format.
That said, here are 10 takeaways from the new race and championship formats that you might have missed.
Editor’s Note: If you haven’t made sense of the new format, you may want to give our official news post a view before proceeding on. Without grasping the basics of the new format the takeaways listed below may not make sense.
1) A Team Could (Theoretically) Miss the Daytona 500 and Still Gain Points
Ready for a head-scratcher to start the list?
Courtesy of NASCAR’s decision to award segment points to the top-10 finishers in the two Can-Am Duels at Daytona, the Daytona 500’s 150-mile qualifying races, one of the non-chartered teams could theoretically gain points from its Feb. trip to Florida without actually making “The Great American Race.”
Is it likely? No. Such a feat would require enough non-charter teams finishing inside of the top 10 for one team to fail to qualify, something unlikely to happen given the scarcity of non-charter teams and the equipment differential between most of those organizations and the 36 teams holding a charter.
Still, assuming more than 40 teams attempt to make the Daytona 500, it’s a possibility.
2) Everyone’s In on the Fun … Even the Minor Leagues
The emphasis of Monday’s announcement was placed on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but it won’t be the only series to include the latest rules.
NASCAR confirmed in the unveil that all three of its top national series will adapt to the new playoff format, meaning both the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series will adopt playoff points and each of the other quirks highlighted above and below.
With this switch, a season like William Byron’s seven-win 2016 campaign in the Truck Series won’t be as easily undone by one issue, increasing their odds of competing in the Championship 4.
3) Missing Races and Making the Playoffs Will No Longer Require a Waiver
Hurt in a crash? Recovering from a concussion? Skipping a race for a family emergency – i.e. the birth of a child?
Good news, you won’t need a waiver to keep your playoff hopes alive.
While NASCAR proved generous with its waiver process in the previous three seasons under the old “Chase” format, granting waivers to Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Kyle Larson among others, the organization has elected to do away with the process altogether with its new rules package, removing the requirement to attempt to make each regular season race from the list of playoff eligibility rules.
All teams have to do now is finish inside of the top 30 and score an all-important win, and a playoff position will be theirs unless there are more than 16 winners.
The move makes sense. The attempt requirement implemented during the Chase was done to incentivize teams and drivers to show up each week. Under the new championship format the need for playoff points should prove incentive enough to keep drivers heading to the track.
4) Overcoming Injuries/Shortened Seasons Will Prove More Difficult
A run like Kyle Busch’s midseason comeback from injury to win the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (now MENCS) title will prove more difficult in the upcoming season.
Getting into the playoffs will technically be easier, due to the lack of a waiver process listed above. But making the climb through the postseason won’t be as easy.
With less time to earn playoff points, which transfer through each round of the playoffs, drivers who miss significant portions of the season will likely need a slew of playoff victories and poor luck from their competitors to mount a significant charge.
Underdog runs such as Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman (2014) and Austin Dillon (2016) will also prove challenging, with a larger gap to make up on the teams that excel and make it to victory lane during the regular season.
Is another Newman-like run impossible? No. But it’ll likely require a stellar playoff run and some poor luck from the competition.
5) Winning or Consistency Will Be More Important Based on Regular Season Performance
Winning is everything, especially in the playoffs, right?
Unless, of course, you succeeded enough during the regular season.
As detailed above, drivers who struggle to get to victory lane or miss multiple races will be in for a steep climb when the playoffs begin. They’ll likely require consistent success and victories to have a shot at advancing to the Championship 4.
However, for the Brad Keselowskis and Kyle Busches of the world — drivers known for winning in bunches during the regular season — playoff success could well depend on consistency over trips to victory lane.
Winning will still be as important as ever courtesy of the guaranteed advancement to the next round of the postseason that accompanies it. However, with teams awarded five playoff points for each victory during the regular season, drivers who can rack up 4-5 victories during the regular season will have nearly a full race’s worth of bonus points to use as a mulligan in each round.
For those drivers, consistent results and minimizing losses may prove as crucial as segment wins and overall victories.
That is, until Homestead. Once the Championship 4 arrives, winning will again be everything.
6) Qualifying is (Even More) Important
If track position was important in the quest for points in a complete 500-mile event, then it’s infinitely more important with segment points on the line at roughly 25 percent and 50 percent completion of each event.
Try as NASCAR might, passing still won’t be easy at every track on the tour, and even at tracks where passing comes easy, moving through the field can be a challenge.
Because of that, getting track position early will be more important than ever before with as many as 20 points and two playoff points on the line in the first half of each event.
Expect to see teams putting more emphasis on qualifying than ever before, because a good qualifying lap early in the weekend is now more valuable than it has ever been.
7) Pit Strategy Should Be More Varied Than Ever
Going along with the track position argument above, teams with poor qualifying efforts may need to get creative to try to snag those treasured segments points early on.
Unless the ability for teams to pass takes a significant leap forward with the new low-downforce package, maneuvering from the back half of the field into the top 10 to gain segment points in the first half of the race should prove to be a challenge.
Because of that, crew chiefs may take a lesson from struggling football teams and open up the playbook.
Two tires? Fuel only?
Don’t be surprised to see either of the above in more frequent doses next season, particularly if the caution flag falls near the end of a segment.
The risk may be high in those instances, but for many teams the reward of as many as 10 points may be worth the move, particularly at tracks like Indianapolis Motor Speedway where passing proves difficult.
Picture a drive like Landon Cassill in last season’s spring Bristol race, wherein the Front Row Motorsports driver surprised the field to lead 20 laps early in the going.
Last season the stint offered little more than a feel-good moment for one of the sport’s underfunded teams. This year, the move could be rewarded with as many as 10 points.
In a points system where 10 markers can be the difference between a playoff berth and next year’s preparation, expect some teams on the bubble to get bold with strategy to snag to a few extra points.
8) Short-Pitting to Gain Ground in Future Segments Won’t Prove Easy (At Most Tracks)
Anyone who watched a Camping World Truck Series race at one of the larger tracks that utilized the Caution Clock last season can likely remember seeing teams dive down to pit road just as the clock was about to expire, attempting to get fuel and tires before the yellow and cycle ahead of the field following caution-flag stops.
Thanks to a small inclusion in the new rules from NASCAR, that will prove difficult in the new format.
Quietly brought up in the announcement was the fact that pit road will be closed off five laps before the end of each segment at most tracks, prohibiting teams to dive down pit lane without facing penalties.
Because of this, trying to game the system on pit road will prove challenging. At most smaller tracks it’ll be impossible to keep from being lapped while on pit road, and at the tracks that are big enough to avoid it — Pocono, Indianapolis and Talladega, for example — having five more laps of fuel and tires could prove too beneficial to justify pitting.
Could we still see it? Possibly. Will it be common? Probably not.
9) Not All Races Will Be Official at Halfway
For seemingly as long as NASCAR has existed, the policy for a completed race has been to deem a race official once it’s past halfway.
However, with the new segments that may not always be the case.
Per the new policy, a race will be deemed official after the end of its second segment. However, while most events will generally be divided into a 25-25-50 scale, not every event will match that mark exactly.
For example, per Indianapolis Motor Speedway track president Douglas Boles, the Brickyard 400’s second segment will end after lap 90 of 160, or 56.25 percent through the scheduled distance.
— J. Douglas Boles (@jdouglas4) January 24, 2017
10) If You Go to the Garage Area, Your Day’s Likely Done
Picture this: A driver crashes early, nearly totaling his machine and forcing him to drive back to the garage area for the majority of the race.
However, with the laps winding down, you take a glance at timing and scoring and realize he has made his way back to the track, out logging laps to gain crucial points after significant repairs from his team.
Any longtime NASCAR fan has memories of seeing teams rally from early crashes to log laps and pick up a few extra positions. Dale Earnhardt once even drove his infamous No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet car back to the garage area after flipping at Daytona in the hopes that it could be repaired to salvage points.
The frequency of those rallies to return to the track had slowed in recent years, particularly during the regular season when teams with a victory and guaranteed Chase bid had little to gain.
Now, they’ll be rare, if not impossible due to new rules created to minimize the sight of slow, wrecked cars on-track.
Teams will no longer be permitted to replace body panels during a race, and additional limitations will be placed on crash repair, meaning that teams will find it difficult to make their way back to the racing surface if damage forces them to the garage area.
Furthermore, the slight change in the points awarded to back-markers will further discourage returning to the track. Positions 36-40 will each receive just one point, meaning that teams will have nothing but pride to gain in returning to the racing surface to improve their position in that range.
There could certainly still be instances with damaged cars on track — think races like last spring’s wreckfest at Talladega — but for the most part a wrecked race car will likely spell day’s end for most teams in the paddock.
There you have it: 10 takeaways that you might not have noticed amid the first rush of confusion after the NASCAR’s announcement of its new championship format.
In radically redesigning its season format, NASCAR has likely set the upcoming season up for a litany of new quirks both anticipated and surprising.
Whether the on-track product and championship excitement will be enough to overcome whatever issues may arise remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: For better or worse, 2017 is primed to be one of the most intriguing years in the motorsport’s 69-year history.