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NASCAR is back . . . with some changes

By Dave Kallmann Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:58 PM

Providing a list of crimes and resulting punishments for all to see? Given its history, that might be as radical a change as NASCAR has made in years. . . .

Were it not for a move away from insomnia-curing single-car qualifying. As tweaks go, a format in which the fastest cars actually compete on the track at the same time, that’s a big one, my friends. B-I-G. Perhaps the biggest since . . . .

Well, it sure seemed extreme anyway, right up until NASCAR chairman Brian France and the rest of the brass in Daytona Beach, Fla., ripped up the Sprint Cup championship format again.

With the season set to open this weekend, we need to be clear: The cars still turn left most of the time and Jimmie Johnson is still champ. But with so many other aspects different, a rulebook, a program and a bottle of aspirin could come in handy most of the next 40 weekends.

“Yeah, fan or participant, it is a lot of change,” said Johnson, who with his sixth title last year pulled within one of all-time leaders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

“Brian made it clear: The success of this sport is on his shoulders. He’s going to make change and not be afraid to make change.”

Given the procedures were already different for the Daytona 500 from other races, fans will have an opportunity to ease into some of this. 

Nonetheless, when qualifying starts Sunday for the season opener a week later, a bumper crop of rookies, the first outing for Team Tempestuous and the return of an iconic number will prove that NASCAR hasn’t just picked up where it left off in November.

Eight drivers plan to make their first full run through the schedule, certainly the largest field in recent years. Top among them are 21-year-old Kyle Larson, the latest version of the greatest thing since sliced bread, and Austin Dillon, who was rookie of the year in the two national steppingstone series, Nationwide and Camping World trucks.

Regardless of who has the upper hand, Dillon will attract more attention for driving his grandfather’s No. 3 Chevrolet in Sprint Cup for the first time since Earnhardt died in one at Daytona in 2001. Some would have preferred to see the number retired.

“I feel like hopefully we can win them over as time goes on,” Dillon said. “Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.”

The other notable comeback belongs to Tony Stewart, the three-time champion who missed the final 15 races last year after suffering fractures in his lower right leg in a sprint car accident. Stewart’s body might need a full year to fill in the gaps in his shattered bones, but even at partial strength he’s still better than most. There’s no questioning his motivation.

“Normally I’m thinking in days and weeks. Now I’m thinking in hours,” Stewart said of getting back on track. “It’s been a long time since August fifth.”

Another reason to keep an eye on Stewart is for the group of drivers he and co-owner Gene Haas have assembled, adding Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch to Stewart and Danica Patrick. Stewart says they’re not a chain of explosions awaiting ignition but rather four talented drivers whose demanding, Type A personalities will help them relate. If the chemistry experiment works, they’ll be hard to stop, and if the whole thing blows up it could be painful to watch.

Elsewhere, Mark Martin insists he’s really retired, Jeff Burton eases way through a part-time schedule on his way to TV, Ryan Newman has replaced Burton at Richard Childress Racing and Martin Truex Jr. took over at Furniture Row Racing, the tiny team Busch showed can compete for top-five finishes.

With Janesville’s Travis Kvapil out of a full-time ride, the Wisconsin contingent in NASCAR’s top division is down to two drivers. Paul Menard, a native of Eau Claire, has become a team’s senior driver for the first time in his career, thanks to the comings and goings at Childress. Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion from Cambridge, starts his second year at Joe Gibbs Racing trying to top what he considers his best season in racing, a seven-wins, second-in-points 2013. 

Once the series moves on from Daytona, the massive package of new rules, regulations and procedures will move to the forefront. 

Changes to the year-old Gen-6 car itself are essentially minor tweaks intended to have a major effect on the racing on intermediate tracks. They include a taller spoiler (designed to add grip at the rear of the car), a larger radiator pan (to help at the front) and the elimination of a minimum ride height measurement at the front (to reduce the manipulation necessary to allow a car to both pass inspection and race optimally).

If they work as planned, the alterations will allow drivers to race closer and pass more often on the 1.5-mile tracks that make up the largest portion of the schedule. The word “boring” had been heard far too often for the tastes of NASCAR’s top managers.

They might have eliminated the complaint about qualifying, too, replacing single-car runs with a group system like those used in Formula One and IndyCar.

On the intermediate tracks, qualifying will consist of three sessions with the fastest 24 moving to the second round and the best of those to a fast-five shootout. Road courses and short tracks will have two sessions. Routine adjustments will be permitted on pit road during breaks and even within each session.

“There are gonna be 15 of us sitting on pit road waiting for that cloud to come over; 12 of us are gonna try and drive off the end of pit road at the same time,” Greg Biffle said. “It’s really gonna spice things up. It’s just that we’ve got to get all of those fans watching to understand everything that’s going on and then it will be really exciting for them, too.”

Although less compelling on a weekly basis, the change in the penalty structure could be the most dramatic given NASCAR’s 60-plus-year history.

The delivery of punishment was often subjective — typically too subjective in the eyes of those punished — but this year’s rulebook includes more specific guidelines about what infractions earn what punishment. Also spelled out are examples of violations broken into six categories (P1 to P6) based on seriousness as well as an explanation of how multiple offenses cause punishment to escalate. Teams also will have access to computer illustrations of parts that tell them what’s legal and what’s not. 

“Fair play and innovation are two distinct differences and that essentially comes down to the gray areas of the rule book and how they’re defined,” said 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. “It could really reset the field and the balance of who is fast week in and week out and change it from maybe the arbitrary system that it was in the past to a real balanced field.”

Ultimately, though, what created the biggest uproar of the off-season was the latest changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Sixteen drivers will make the pseudo-playoff held over the final 10 races, and eliminations will cut the field of contenders after the third, sixth and ninth races. A winner in any segment is assured of advancing. Four in the field of 43 will stage their own little winner-take-all battle for the title during the finale in Homestead, Fla. 

The system means the first driver to the checkered flag at Daytona is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Chase. It also sets up the possibility that a driver could win four or five races in the year-end shootout — even nine — and not take the championship.

“Everybody has an opinion about the Chase, but we can all agree it’s going to be exciting,” Clint Bowyer said. “If you’re a fan, that’s going to be some premium entertainment. Especially when you get down to Homestead, it’s going to be complete chaos. 

Whether it’s chaos that’s enough to boost TV ratings against football remains to be seen. Ten events constitute a long playoff, as long as the NFL posteason and NCAA basketball tournament combined.

But whatever the path and its new twists and turns, for the drivers, the destination remains unchanged: the Sprint Cup championship. Another aspect, too, is the same as most recent years: Johnson is the consensus pick as the man to beat.

“Jimmie’s an animal,” Kyle Busch said. “Throughout the whole time of being here, even when he wasn’t winning championships his first four or five seasons, he was still finishing second, third, fifth — no worse than fifth ever.

“Certainly there’s better opportunity for a lot of us that we can keep up with them (considering of all the changes), but the bar is definitely high and you know when you win it, it’s going to be a huge accomplishment.”

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