DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Welcome back, everybody.
I hope you brought your suntan lotion, lots of cash for those jacked up prices at the Fleabag Motor Inn, and of course, your restrictor plates. It’s time to rev up the engines again for the 56th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.
There’s lot of other stuff going on before then — the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, pole qualifying on Sunday afternoon, the Budweiser Duel next Thursday night, and of course the Great American Race to cap it all off.
But before Gary Sinise says “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines” we have some catching up to do. Lots of stuff has happened since Jimmie Johnson made it a six-pack in Homestead last November. With that in mind, here are the top five story lines for the 2014 NASCAR season:
1. THE NEW POINTS FORMAT: Designed to put the focus on winning races and set up “Game 7 moments,” NASCAR CEO Brian France led the revolution toward blowing up the Chase format. It’s a seismic shift in the business model, and one that will play out to mixed reactions.
There will be knockout rounds and a “Final Four” format in the final race of the season, when four drivers will have an equal shot at winning the Cup title. Lots of left-handed turns will be made before we get there, but unequivocally, this is a game-changer for the NASCAR franchise — one way or the other.
2. DREAM TEAM?: Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have two new teammates — Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. Busch is nicknamed “Rowdy.” Harvick is nicknamed “Happy”, but not for his happy-go-lucky disposition.
They will be four alpha dogs in the mix, all highly personable and combustible. If any of the Stewart-Haas Racing cars go bump on the track jockeying for position among each other, heads will explode. And that’s just in the media center.
3. DALE EARNHARDT JR.: NASCAR’s favorite son is back for his final ride with crew chief Steve Letarte, who is leaving after this season to join the commentary crew at NBC Sports.
Letarte has been a fabulous mentor to Earnhardt, a delicate kind of guy emotionally who needs to be coddled. Their last run could be historic if Junior wins his first NASCAR Cup title. Heads will explode if that happens as well. All over the map, not just the media center.
4. UP IN SMOKE?: Three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart will drive a stock car for the first time in six months on Friday, during practice for the Sprint Unlimited. Stewart has been out of commission since he was involved in a nasty accident during a dirt-track race last August. He’s needed three surgical procedures since then to deal with a broken right tibia and fibula.
Stewart said his left leg will be about 65 percent healed, but that should not affect his driving ability. No doubt that Stewart — as tough as they come — isn’t going to reprise a scene from Talladega Nights when Will Ferrell gets back into a car after an accident and goes five miles per hour. He will be fast. The question is whether his body is up to speed for the 36-race NASCAR grind.
5. QUALIFYING: There will be a new qualifying format in play once everyone leaves Daytona. Drivers will attempt to qualify in clusters, as opposed to the mundane redundancy of taking a solo spin around the track. ZZZZZZZ. That’s just not me talking.
Take a look at all the empty seats in the grandstands on Friday and Saturdays. This is another significant part of NASCAR’s new business model. But they will need buy-in from the fans. I suspect this one will amp up interest significantly. The key will be maintaining everyone engaged with the new championship format.
That said, start ‘em up. It’s time to go racing.