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.
How will race weekends change?
There are many little tweaks. Qualifying order will be based on practice speeds: Slowest car in final practice goes out first, fastest goes out last. If qualifying is rained out, the field is set by practice speeds. If rain cancels practice and qualifying, the field is set by points. It's a fairer way to do things for the race teams.
Sprint Cup teams get five sets of tires for practice and qualifying instead of six. They must return four of those sets to Goodyear in order to receive their race allotment, and may keep one set of practice/qualifying tires. Tire allotments for race weekends will vary according to historical performance data.
Any technical changes?
Just a few – but they're huge. NASCAR adopts E15 ethanol fuel this year, which produces slightly more horsepower, but at a penalty of fuel mileage that's reduced 15-25 percent. In other words, throw out all the old fuel calculations at places like Kansas, New Hampshire and Michigan. There will be races won and lost this year because of how good or bad a crew chief calculates the mileage.
Along with that, NASCAR has eliminated the catch-can man, which will result in slower pit stops and a slightly different rhythm on pit road. The self-venting fuel cans that NASCAR is adopting for this year take about one second longer to fill the fuel cells, so expect to see some changes in pit strategy.
Also gone from the Cup cars is the dog-ass ugly front splitter with its ungainly vertical braces. The new design is much more aesthetically pleasing and cleaner. Dodge and Ford teams also get new upper noses as well. This is all a prelude to 2013, when the new-generation Sprint Cup car debuts. Auto execs already are licking their chops at the prospect of racing cars that look a whole lot more like stock cars than those being raced today.
What are the significant schedule changes?
Atlanta Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway each lose a race. Kansas Speedway picks up a second date in the spring and Kentucky Speedway will host its first Sprint Cup race in July.
For the first time in the eight-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's playoff round opens somewhere other than New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which this year will host round two of the Chase. The first playoff race this year will be at Chicagoland Speedway in September.
What's the news in the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series?
The above changes apply in all three series, with the exception of the Chase, which remains exclusive to the Sprint Cup Series. One big change: Drivers can only accumulate championship points in one series. No more “Buschwhackers” winning Nationwide titles. That's huge.
In the Nationwide Series, the new-gen car that was raced four times in 2010 will be used in all 35 races. So, hello, Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger.
What are the big personnel moves?
There are a few mid-pack moves of note: 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte moves to JTG-Daugherty Racing, replacing Marcos Ambrose, who's now at Richard Petty Motorsports. Paul Menard and his sponsorship is now at Richard Childress Racing, his fourth team in as many years.
But there are two moves that dwarf the others: The first is a three-way swap of crew chiefs at Hendrick Motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr. moves into the same shop as Jimmie Johnson, with Steve Letarte as his crew chief. The other Hendrick shop will be Jeff Gordon (ABOVE) and crew chief Alan Gustafson, with Mark Martin and Lance McGrew.
The other intriguing combo is Red Bull Racing, where Brian Vickers returns after missing two-thirds of 2010 for treatment of blood clots. His teammate for 2011 only will be Kasey Kahne, who in 2012 will replace Martin at Hendrick. It wouldn't shock if Vickers and Kahne both make the Chase.
Who will surprise in 2011?
Trevor Bayne will drive the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in 17 races. The Woods have decided to go back to having Roush Fenway Racing build their cars and Bayne can flat get up on the wheel. Even without running a full schedule, he'll make some noise for sure.
Two other drivers to watch for: Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard. With his NASCAR Nationwide Series championship crew chief Paul Wolfe moving up and Keselowski shifting to Penske Racing's No. 2 Blue Deuce, this is a team that will win races. And Menard is more than just a member of the Lucky Sperm Club: He showed last year that he can drive and he will make people take notice with his performance at RCR.
Will Jimmie Johnson win six in a row? No. This year, the odds will finally catch up to him, and the five guys most likely to beat him, in order, are:
- Kevin Harvick For the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death, the swagger is back in a big way at Richard Childress Racing – fast cars, big horsepower and a team owner and driver who 100 percent believe not only that they can win it all, but that they will win it all.
- Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Racing closed out 2010 strong with two wins for Cousin Carl – once Jack Roush figured out how skewed his simulation software was relative to the competition. Plus, the FR9 Ford engine is now fully sorted.
- Denny Hamlin So close and yet so far in 2010, Hamlin will either kick everyone's butt and score a dominant first Sprint Cup, or fade back in the pack and never get close this year.
- Jeff Gordon With Alan Gustafson running his team now, Gordon might step up in a big way and bag his fifth title 11 years after taking his fourth. Not saying he's too old, but Jeff turns 40 this year, and hears the clock ticking.
- Tony Stewart Like Gordon, Stewart will be 40 this year. The fact that he's gone on a major diet and exercise regimen is testament to just how serious “Smoke” is about adding a third championship title.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.