It has only been three months since the checkered flag waved ending the 2016 Sprint Cup season, but during that span the series now has a new name, new point system, new race format, new inspection procedure and a new damaged vehicle policy. All of these will add to what should be one of the more exciting Cup seasons ever, but beginning this weekend at Daytona, the entire sport will have to learn how to approach the changes.
The season-opening Daytona 500 has always featured a qualifying process unlike any other on the entire schedule, and this year that process was tweaked somewhat for the 42 drivers attempting to qualify. Every driver had one lap to post the fastest time during the first round of qualifying on Sunday with the 12 fastest drivers moving on to the second round where they all had one lap to post their speed. When it was over, Chase Elliott won the pole with a time of 192.872 miles per hour with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the outside pole.
Those two drivers are the only drivers with their starting spots guaranteed, but they are not the only drivers guaranteed a starting spot in the field. When NASCAR moved to the Charter system last year, it guaranteed 36 teams a spot in the 40-team field at each stop on the schedule. That left only four spots for the Open/non- Charter teams to fill on qualifying day. There are six Open teams attempting to qualify for the four spots in the 500’s starting field, but the unique qualifying rules used for this race guarantee the fastest two Open teams from Sunday’s qualifying are locked into the field. Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler posted the fastest times of the six Open teams and will be in the starting field when the green flag waves Sunday, regardless of their finish in the qualifying races.
Chase Elliott and Earnhardt Jr.’s front row starting spots are secure with the rest of the field’s starting position to be determined on Thursday in the Can-Am Duel 150-mile qualifying races. The Duels will also determine the two remaining Open drivers that will advance to the 500. Each Duel will have a field of 21 drivers with the finishing order of each used to fill the starting grid. The top Open finisher in each of Thursday’s Duels will advance to Sunday’s race.
In years past, teams that were locked into the starting field were more concerned about making it through the Duel without damaging their race car than winning. This year NASCAR has added some incentive to the race as points will be awarded to the top-10 finishers in each race with the winner receiving 10, second earning 9, and continuing to descend by one point for each place with the 10th-place finisher being awarded one point.
Sunday’s race will be the first to be held under the new format that divides the race into three segments with the first two consisting of 60 laps and the third segment containing 80 laps. Points will also be awarded for each of the first two segments in the same manner as that for the Duels. The winner of the final segment will receive 40 points, and the second 35 points with each spot one point less down to 2 points for a 35th-place finish. The remaining five drivers will each receive one point.
Even though the racing will be typical restrictor plate racing that we see anytime the series rolls into Daytona, the two shorter segments might force a change in the strategy. In the past, many teams were content to just try and stay out of trouble so they would be in a position to run for the win as the final laps started to go off the board. The points that can be earned in the first two segments may force every team to get to the front as quick as they can and stay there. If that is the case, the real winner of the new rule changes will be the fans that will see a hotly contested contest from the green flag to the checkered flag.
Event: Daytona 500
Track: Daytona International
Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval, 31o
of banking in the turns)
Date: February 26, 2 p.m.
Defending Champion: Denny