In the sport of Sprint Cup Racing, there is no other race on the schedule that comes close to creating the excitement that comes from Daytona in February. The 10 days that the series spends at Daytona International Speedway does an awesome job of giving the fans enough racing along the way that the excitement reaches a frenzy level by the time the green flag waves to begin the sport’s biggest event.
It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of Daytona and forget that even though it is the biggest race of the season, it pays the same points as the remaining 35 races. The point system is a little more forgiving since the sanctioning body changed it to where the winner is awarded 43 points for the win and the rest of the finishing order has their points reduced by one point for each spot. There are also bonus points for winning and for leading both a lap and the most laps.
NASCAR changed the format used to set the Chase field before last season with winning becoming the easiest way to claim one of the 16 spots that would run for the title. Since the sport had always used its traditional point system to determine its champion, teams entered the season trying to figure out a strategy that would get them into the Chase.
That strategy was made a lot easier for every team when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was interviewed after winning the 500 and was told that he not only had won the biggest race on the schedule, but that he had also just punched his ticket into the Chase. That may have been the moment when every driver figured out that if he could make it to a victory lane before the final 10 races of the season that makes up the Chase that he would not have to worry about where he finished every week.
Earnhardt and his team left Daytona that day not having to experience the pressure of just trying to get into the Chase. Without that pressure, Earnhardt and his crew chief Steve Letarte put together one of the best years of the driver’s career as they were able to drive for wins without having to worry about finishing high in order to collect as many points as they could.
The rest of the series immediately followed the example that Earnhardt set with his win. The benefits of winning a race became evident as every stop on the schedule seemed to put on a fantastic show as drivers and crew chiefs began taking chances for a trip to victory lane that they wouldn’t have taken under the old Chase format.
Joey Logano now will get to enjoy knowing that he will be leaving Daytona with not only a check for $1.5 million, but also a spot in the Chase. It’s only one race but in this sport it is so big that the finishing order goes largely unnoticed as it is all about winning. There is only one Daytona and now it is time to move on to the next stop on the schedule at Atlanta. Beginning this weekend all of the racing will take place from Friday to Sunday with the regular qualifying format and very little track time for practicing.
Every driver with the exception of Logano must now make the most of qualifying and practice in order to give himself the best chance to capture a checkered flag and advance into the Chase. Each passing race is one less opportunity for a driver to notch a win and that is where that even though very little attention was given to the point standings after Daytona, the reality is that there could be several drivers who make it into the Chase by their position in the points.
Last season’s runner-up Ryan Newman came within one finishing spot in the final race at Homestead Miami of winning the series title without ever winning a race the entire season. Newman’s path to the Chase through the points is as important as winning, so with Daytona in the record books it is time to begin the long road to the championship.
Event: Quik Trip Folds of Honor 500
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.5 mile quad oval, 24o of banking in the turns)
Date: March 1, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kasey Kahne (August, 2104 only race at Atlanta)