Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The 2014 Sprint Cup Series season has arrived and with it a host of competition changes that should make this a rather amazing year in NASCAR's top racing circuit.
NASCAR officials have been quite busy during the offseason, announcing a new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship as well as a radical change to the qualifying format for all three of its national series and a substantial enhancement to its penalty structure and appeals process.
There are a lot of other storylines to follow as we head into Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, which begins with Saturday night's preseason race, The Sprint Unlimited, and culminates with the Feb. 23 Daytona 500.
Jimmie Johnson is gearing up for his attempt to win a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship. Tony Stewart is back in the car after missing nearly half of the 2013 season due to a broken leg, and the No. 3 made famous by Dale Earnhardt returns to the track in Sprint Cup for the first time in 13 years.
NEW "WINNER-TAKE-ALL" CHASE FORMAT
On. Jan 30, NASCAR revealed sweeping changes to its playoff format for Sprint Cup this year, expanding the field of drivers/teams from 12 to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to the determine the Sprint Cup champion.
Any Sprint Cup points eligible driver who wins during the 26-race regular season is all but guaranteed of a berth in the 10-race Chase. After the 26th race, which is Sept. 6 at Richmond, 16 drivers will qualify for what will now be called the "NASCAR Chase Grid."
The number of drivers in contention for the championship will decrease after every three Chase races. Just four competitors will remain in the title battle when the series runs its season-finale on Nov. 16 at Homestead. The highest finisher among those four drivers at Homestead will win the series championship.
"The new Chase will be thrilling, easy to understand, and help drive our sports competition to a whole new level," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said during his announcement of the new Chase format.
NASCAR instituted the Chase for its premier series in 2004. The sanctioning body had spent the past several years discussing and planning a new playoff system, in hopes of improving competition, bettering television ratings and track attendance and attracting more race fans.
"When we look around at sports, everything is changing," said Johnson, who is the reigning Sprint Cup champion. "The Olympics look far different than they used to. The NFL is considering change. All sports. The world is changing. Our viewership is changing, so the sport has to change.
"I'm not sure if this is the exact thing, the right thing. Only time will tell. But I do support NASCAR, and I do commend them on making a bold change. I think that it's going to bring excitement, especially those final 10 races."
The top-15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will become eligible for the Chase, provided they have finished in the top-30 in points and attempted to qualify for every race, except in rare instances. The final position will go to the points leader after Richmond, if he or she does not have a victory.
If there were 16 or more different winners after Richmond, the only winless driver who can earn a Chase spot would be the points leader. Should there be fewer than 16 different winners at the end of the regular season, the remaining positions would then go to those winless drivers highest in points.
"If you don't win, you still want to finish as high as you can every week," said Matt Kenseth, who won a series-high seven races and finished second in the point standings last year. "If you look at past history, there's going to be a few cars that are put in that didn't win a race. You still want to finish the best you can in case you don't get a win, so you have points to get in that way."
In its 10-year history, Johnson has won the most races in the Chase with 24, including two last year.
"I still think the way you win a championship is the same - you've got to win races," he said. "I think it builds more excitement with the fact that you've got to win the transfer. There is that elimination process that works its way down."
Qualifying this year is not going to be a bigger challenge for only Sprint Cup drivers and teams but Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series competitors as well.
NASCAR has adopted a qualifying format that is similar to knockout qualifying used for Formula One and IndyCar Series road/street course races. The new format will not be used for the Daytona 500, but it will make its debut next week for the Nationwide and Truck Series season-openers at Daytona. Sprint Cup will utilize the format beginning with the March 2 race at Phoenix.
At NASCAR racetracks measuring 1.25 miles or longer in length, qualifying consists of three rounds, which is the same number of rounds for F1 and IndyCar qualifying. Tracks measuring less than 1.25 miles feature just two segments.
"I feel like we needed to do that a few years ago," said Jeff Gordon, who is a four-time Cup champion and has 74 career pole wins. "When F1 started doing it, I was instantly a huge fan, and said, 'Man, I wish we had this.' I love that [NASCAR] is incorporating it."
REVAMPED PENALTY SYSTEM
Referring to it as a "Deterrence System," NASCAR revised its penalty structure and appeals process for this year. Officials said penalties will now be easily understood and it specifically lays out exactly what disciplinary action will be taken on the type of technical infraction.
The list of penalties begins with warnings and then includes six penalty levels (P1-P6).
Warnings are issued instead of penalties for certain types of minor, first- time infractions.
A P1, the least significant offense, would result from multiple warnings to the same team, and penalties would range from last choice in pit selection process to track time deductions in practice/qualifying. A P6, the most significant, would be for violations such as affecting the internal workings and performance of the engine, modifying the pre-certified chassis, traction control or affecting EFI (electronic fuel injection) or the ECU (engine control unit). Penalties for a P6 would include: loss of 150 driver/owner points, a fine ranging from $150,000-$200,000 and a six-race suspension for the team's crew chief.
"It completely changes the game, because we have this balance in this sport between fair play and innovation, and it's a constant battle as to what teams are fast each and every week," said Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. "Fair play and innovation are two distinct differences, and that essentially comes down to the gray areas of the rule book and how they're defined. That's being re-defined with this literature and this process."
In restructuring its appeal process, NASCAR appointed Bryan Moss as final appeals officer for the sport. Moss, the former president of Gulfstream Aerospace, replaced John Middlebrook, who had been in the role previously known as the chief appellate officer.
SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR JOHNSON?
Regardless of NASCAR's new Chase format, Johnson is figured to be the favorite to win this year's championship. If he claims the title, it will be number seven for the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, placing him in a tie with Richard Petty and Earnhardt for most championships in the sport.
Johnson won five consecutive Sprint Cup titles from 2006-10 and then grabbed the "six pack" this past season, defeating Kenseth by 19 points.
"When we got the five in a row, I felt like we could maybe get up there to Richard or to Dale, but man, it is so tough to do," Johnson said. "I'm not taking it lightly or for granted. I wanted to see six come and then worry about seven. Now we're here. Hopefully, we'll have another opportunity at it."
Johnson's sixth championship came in his 12th season. Petty claimed his seventh title in his 19th year of competition, while Earnhardt's seventh came in his 16th season.
Johnson, the only driver who has qualified for the Chase each year since it began in '04, is optimistic about his chances for a seventh title. But he knows it will be more of a challenge for him this year than it has in the past.
"We respond well to pressure," he said. "That's one thing that the 48 has done a nice job with. But first things first, we got to transfer through the different segments, make sure we're not eliminated and have a shot at it."
"SMOKE" RETURNS TO RACING
Stewart has been anxious to get back in his race car for quite some time now -- actually six months.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season after he broke his right tibia and fibula during an accident in a sprint car race on Aug. 5 in Iowa. He underwent three surgeries to repair his leg, including one where a metal rod was inserted inside his fractured tibia. He continues to have physical therapy.
Though he has been cleared by doctors and NASCAR to race, Stewart has not fully recovered from his injury.
"Probably about another year when the bones will be healed 100 percent," Stewart said. "We're about 65 percent right now. So there are so many gaps in the bone. A hairline fracture didn't have far to grow the rest of the way, but when you have pieces that are missing, it's got to regenerate that bone. With the titanium rod in there, we have the strength we need. But the actual physical healing, it's going to take a little longer."
Stewart is planning to compete in sprint car races again this year, but when he returns has yet to be determined.
"Obviously, the Cup car is the priority right now," he said. "As soon as it feels good enough to go do the other stuff I want to do, I'm going to go do it. We've made a lot of changes on the sprint car to try to make sure that never happens again."
Stewart has two new teammates this year, with Kurt Busch and Harvick coming on board. Harvick is driving the No. 4 car for SHR after spending the last 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. Busch is behind the wheel of SHR's new fourth team, the No. 41, after giving Furniture Row Racing its first Chase appearance this past year. This will be Danica Patrick's second full season with the team.
THE RETURN OF THE 3
With rookie Austin Dillon behind the wheel, the iconic No. 3 car is back on the racetrack in Sprint Cup after a long hiatus.
Dillon, the 23-year-old grandson of NASCAR multi-team owner Richard Childress, is expected to make his race debut in the No. 3 this coming week at Daytona. He is moving up to the Sprint Cup ranks after winning the Nationwide Series championship last year.
The No. 3 has not been used in NASCAR's top series since Earnhardt was killed in an accident during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick replaced Earnhardt after his death, while RCR changed the car number from 3 to 29.
"The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever," Dillon said. "Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number. He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody's mind, including myself."
Dillon drove the No. 3 in the Camping World Truck Series from 2009-11 and then Nationwide from 2012-13. He won the truck championship two years ago.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is pleased to see his late father's car number returning to Cup.
"I feel good with it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think it's great for Austin and Richard - grandson and grandfather being able to come together and doing something like that with a number that's been in their family for so many years. It has a lot of history inside their family. I'm happy for Austin. I've known him a long time. I've known Richard forever."
Dillon is one of eight drivers competing for the rookie-of-the-year title in Sprint Cup. Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex and Cole Whitt are rookies in Cup this season as well.
"[Winning] rookie of the year in the other two series [Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series], I definitely want to accomplish that in the Cup Series," Dillon said. "I feel like the competition is stout. I feel like every year I've been in Nationwide or Truck, there's been some really good classes. Then also last year battling for a [Nationwide] championship. Hopefully what I learned going through that with the stout competition we had last year in Nationwide will help me this year going forward."
Dillon is teaming with Paul Menard and Ryan Newman, who is taking over Jeff Burton's seat in the No. 31 car at RCR. Newman spent the past five seasons with SHR.