The 2011 NASCAR season, which begins this weekend with the Budweiser Shootout and qualifying for the Daytona 500, promises subtle, but significant changes in the competitive landscape. Here are the salient questions and answers about what to expect this coming season.
How does the new points system work?
Actually, not much different than the old one. In all three of NASCAR's top series, the winner gets a minimum of 47 points for a race victory: 43 for winning, three bonus points and one additional point for leading a lap. Second place pays 42 points, third place 41, etc., down to 43rd place, which pays a single point. Anyone who leads a lap gets one bonus point. The driver who leads the most laps gets an additional point.
So will this tighten the points race?
It will create that illusion. On a percentage basis, there's little difference between the old system – 190 points for first, 170 for second – and the new. But because the absolute points differential is smaller, it will appear much closer. All in all, not a radical overhaul.
How about the Chase?
The top 10 in points after 26 races make it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. There will be two wild card drivers – the two drivers in points positions 11-20 with the most individual race wins. Jamie McMurray, who won twice in NASCAR's 2010 regular season, would have made the Chase in this scenario. In case of a tie in terms of race victories, the tie will be broken on points position. And if no one in slots 11-20 wins a race – that hasn't happened since 1998 – the final two Chase spots go to the guys 11th and 12th in points.
So will that change things much?
In theory, there could be drama if a driver in the second 10 wins one or two races late in NASCAR's regular season and thrusts himself into the Chase picture.
Once in the Chase, there could be profound points implications for a single disastrous finish. With the points tightened slightly, just one really bad result could destroy a driver's Chase chances. Remember this key point: A bad finish hurts a driver far worse than a good one helps him. This new points system removes all incentive to make risky late-race passes to gain a position or two.
How will Chase points be set?
After the 26th race of the season, each of the 12 Chase drivers will have his points total reset to 2,000. The top 10 drivers will also get 3 bonus points for each race win during NASCAR's regular season. The two wild-card drivers won't get bonus points so will start the Chase with 2,000 points.