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Sunday, February 23, 2014

NASCAR Preview 2014

The 2014 NASCAR season starts today with the Daytona 500.  Thirty-six points races later, a Sprint Cup Champion will be crowned.  In between, there will be ups and downs.  Checkers and wreckers.  Road courses, short tracks and super speedways.  Here are a few things to watch for during the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Harvick's new ride. (AP Photo)
Old Faces in New Places:  Due to the nature of the NASCAR business model, it is not unusual to have drivers switch teams in the off-season.  But, the 2014 season has some particularly interesting changes involving big name teams and established drivers.  Stewart-Haas Racing was at the center of the off-season action.  Ryan Newman left SHR to drive the #31 at Richard Childress Racing.  Despite that departure, SHR expanded from three teams to four.  Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick will be joined by a new star in the SHR garage.  His name is Kevin Harvick.  Harvick brought his lucrative Budweiser sponsorship with him and when he joined the SHR stable.  Havick's star power allows the mercurial Kurt Busch to avoid some of the spotlight as he also joins SHR to drive the #41 car.  Kurt Busch will be replaced at the single-car operation of Furniture Row Racing by Martin Truex, Jr.

Dillon in the #3 (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Youth Movement:  There are eight new drivers in the Sprint Cup series who will be attempting to run a full schedule.  That equates to about 20% of the drivers on the track at any given time being rookies.  That's a lot.  It's hard to predict who will turn out to be the most talented driver in the long run.  But in NACAR, equipment matters.  Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson will be joining established teams with good equipment and large budgets.  Kyle Larson will be driving the #42 for Chip Ganassi Racing.  The 21 year-old Larson was the rookie of the year last season in the Nationwide Season.  That indicates he has talent.  It also indicates that he has limited experience in big time stock car racing.  Austin Dillon, on the other hand, is a proven champion.  Dillon won the 2012 Camping World Truck Series championship in 2012 and followed that up with a Nationwide Series championship in 2013.  Austin Dillon will be driving the iconic #3 car for his grandfather's RCR team.  When Dillon takes the green flag at Daytona, it will be the first time the #3 has appeared in a Sprint Cup race since Dale Earnhardt's tragic on-track death in 2001.

New Gen 6 Cars:  The changes to the cars heading into 2014 are not nearly as drastic as they were heading into the 2013 season.  To sum it up, the spec changes that NASCAR put into place for this season are designed to create more downforce on the cars.  That should mean faster speeds in the corners.  But, until we see these cars on a variety of tracks, we will not know for sure how this will affect the quality of the racing.  From what we've seen so far during the racing at Daytona's Speed Weeks, it looks like tandem drafting will no longer dominate at super speedways.  That alone is an improvement that warrants the changes.

Qualifying Changes:  Gone are the days of single-car qualifying laps.  In a radical overhaul, NASCAR has gone to a group qualifying format that consists of knockout rounds.  The move is designed to bring more fans to tracks and TV sets in the early days of race weekends.  No doubt, this will be more fun to watch, but it could also get expensive for teams if multi-car wrecks become commonplace.  The new format should result in the best race day cars starting at the front on race day.  There will be no place for qualifying specialty cars that can't perform in race trim and in traffic.

(Getty Images)
Revamped Chase:  The biggest topic of conversation heading into the 2014 NASCAR season is revamped format for the Chase.  The basic gist is that NASCAR has changed the focus from consistency to winning.  Under the new format, if a full time team wins a race, then they are almost assured a spot in the Chase.  Once the Chase gets started, it will be divided into four segments.  After each segment, four drivers will be eliminated, and the points will be reset to start the next segment.  This will culminate with four drivers racing in a winner take all race at Homestead to end the year.  No complicated scenarios.  Whoever finishes the best out of those four cars in the final race will win the title.  This format has ruffled the feathers of some of the sport's long time fans.  There is an old-school camp who believes the championship should be a marathon and not a sprint.  However, NASCAR correctly understands that in order to compete with NFL football in the fall, they need to have their own version of a Super Bowl at Homestead on November 16, 2014.  There could certainly be flaws in the new format, but I applaud NASCAR for their willingness to innovate and adapt.

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