Points system impact, Stewart's Aussie scuffle, more questions
The points system change will likely have little effect on how drivers race
Nationwide's success rests heavily on Danica Patrick's shoulders this year
Tony Stewart's confrontation in Australia could come back to bite him this season
With NASCAR's Media Tour in the rearview mirror, just 14 days stand between now and the start of practice for Daytona Speedweeks. With a new points system, adjusted procedure for qualifying rainouts and a new "pick a series" rule to limit drivers to one championship battle apiece, you get a sense of the sport's short-term direction to win fans back. But for every answer, plenty of questions remain as the offseason winds down quickly. Here are five:
1) How will this point system change drivers' thinking, if at all?
NASCAR's hope is this new 43-to-1 format, designed to make it simpler for fans, will have a side effect of making drivers more aggressive. But with Brian France and the powers that be keeping consistency as a main part of the thought process, don't expect that to happen.
"Most importantly, though, we didn't make a fundamental change in wins or anything else," he said. "Because there's always a balance. We like that balance."
So be it. But that means those looking for drivers to stop running for fifth-place finishes and to stop positioning themselves for regular season testing during the race -- a problem I think is bigger than simplifying the system -- will wind up disappointed. After all, if you're Jimmie Johnson why fix a strategy that's worked five years running?
"In concept, it's very similar to what we have now," the reigning champ told the AP last week, a sentiment shared by the vast majority of drivers in the garage. Certainly, the math bears that out, as the dreaded DNF still makes a bigger impact over winning, if not more so.
Here's a simple example for proof. Let's say two drivers are tied for the point lead, and one wins the race on a Sunday while the other blows an engine and finishes last. That's a 47-point difference the driver who DNF'd needs to make up, an astronomical amount. If the new point leader just finished fifth in every race thereafter, "Mr. DNF" would need to win and lead the most laps six straight times to make up the deficit. Compare that to the old system, where five straight would have done the trick ... meaning finishing near the front, not in first place, produces more unintended rewards than ever. If you want to go further, compare that to Formula 1 points, where when disaster strikes it takes half the time to make up the deficit using the previous example.
If anything, the change that'll make drivers more aggressive should be opening up the final two Chase spots to those with the most wins not already qualified. Last year, that would have left four men -- Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann -- in position to take the 12th and final spot if they won the regular season finale at Richmond. That'll leave the early September race filled with automatic drama for years to come -- now, it's time to work on the other 35.
2) How will the new front valance and splitter affect the racing?
With so much focus surrounding Daytona's repave and testing, it's important to remember that type of race is unique to NASCAR: Only four of 36 races run with restrictor plates. The true test for how racing will run in 2011 comes at Phoenix at the end of February, where cars run for the first time without the visible braces on the CoT that "uglified" the front ends while leading to several cut tires and frayed tempers when drivers made contact.
Certainly, Goodyear's happy to see those braces gone. But how these newly-designed cars will handle remains to be seen. Early returns from testing have indicated nothing but minor tweaks, more aesthetic than aerodynamic, which means cars will still have a problem sticking side-by-side heading through the corners on intermediates. With a new car design coming as soon as 2013, it'll be interesting to see how NASCAR handles things if the action stays sluggish as the organization has been hesitant to embrace more wholesale changes. In a way, I see their point: How much more do you put into this model if you're already working on trashing it down the line?
3) How will the Nationwide Series re-identify itself?
Against the wishes of Cup regulars Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and others -- along with title sponsor Nationwide, which begged for those drivers' inclusion up to the last minute -- NASCAR has restricted its "AAA" series championship eligibility to the minor leaguers who should be racing there. It's short-term pain for long-term gain, the right move for a division whose identity was lost by Cup drivers stealing all the PR Thunder. Why are there no rookies on the Cup level? All you have to do is look at Nationwide, where there's no freshmen listed either. How could young drivers move up when they're not even making it to the top level of the minor leagues?
Now, the big question is whether the title battle can overshadow continued appearances -- and wins -- by Keselowski, Edwards, Kyle Busch and several others. I have a strong feeling only Keselowski will wind up running the full schedule, making it unlikely Aric Almirola, Justin Allgaier or others fighting for the championship will have to deal with that "What If" points question. But will the title sponsor get over its bitterness, turn around and make an investment in marketing these up-and-coming stars? The Truck Series has been successful with a mix of both types of drivers, although their visibility doesn't match the level of a series broadcast on ESPN.
In a way, the long-term health of this series now depends on the success or failure of Danica Patrick. She piqued interest during her debut last year, but optimism faded with a season that produced just one top-20 finish. IndyCar's top woman becoming relevant, contending for race wins week in and week out, would convince everyone -- including reluctant car owners -- development drivers are the way to go.
Just don't hold your breath. That's a big jump for any driver to make -- let alone one who's concentrating on the series part-time -- in just a few short months.
4) Who will fill the last open seat on the Cup level?
That would be TRG Motorsports' No. 71 Chevy, which is in negotiations to be fully-funded for 2011. At worst, it'll run the majority of races on the schedule, with top-35 security leaving it "locked into" the first five events, which makes it an attractive option for potential free agents. No timetable has been set for the decision, but young Landon Cassill and TRG Sports Car ace Andy Lally were on the short list last time I checked. And will owner Kevin Buckler reach out to the most experienced free agent remaining, Scott Speed, who otherwise will wind up shutout of Sprint Cup in 2011? The eccentric Californian could be the best option TRG has left.
5) How will Tony Stewart handle the Australian debacle?
By all accounts Stewart was a media darling this week, making a surprise appearance at Joe Gibbs Racing Thursday while the car owner regaled media onlookers with several off-track stories on his former employee. Between girlfriend jokes and serious praise (J.D. Gibbs said in 1997, they polled internal employees on what driver they wanted to start a second team -- Stewart was on every ballot) a leaner, mellow Smoke looked on with seemingly the right focus to fire up his driving skills in 2011.
But there's one ugly topic this veteran deftly avoided that's sticking around. After Stewart threw a helmet at and confronted Parramatta City Raceway co-owner Brett Morris down in Australia, the latter may still press charges after suffering a swollen face and fractured orbital bone that required surgery. No amount of playing nice in America will change what happened Down Under, and any type of legal trouble will force a trip halfway around the globe in a public and on-track disturbance to his 2011 bid for the Chase.
"I don't want to say anything [about the situation relating to the charges being laid]," said Morris to the Sydney Morning Herald. "I'm sure you understand due process."
Doesn't sound like a man who's letting this go, right? Due process could bite Stewart at the worst possible time, forcing him to answer more questions and incite that ugly temper stateside for an incident he wants put behind him sooner rather than later.