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NASCAR Change The Rules – Again

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There must be a serious epidemic of meddling fever running through NASCAR Towers as they announced on Sunday yet another rule change, this one to take immediate effect after the organising body became concerned with the speeds of 206 mph achieved by bump-drafting during the Budweiser Shootout.

Going back to the end of January NASCAR announced during their Media Week a series of rule changes for the coming season. In reality the announcements merely confirmed the carefully controlled leaks over the previous few days. The most significant change, or so it would seem, was to the points to be won in all three major series.

The system used for over thirty years awarding 185 points for a the winning driver, 170 for second place, reducing by five points per place back to sixth, then four points per place back to eleventh and then reducing by three points per place back to the 43rd and last position which was worth 34 points. In addition every driver who led a lap was awarded five points and the driver who led most laps an additional five.

NASCAR considered this to be too complicated for fans to understand, and to be fair some drivers said they found it hard to work out points positions whilst on the run, so they have implemented a system which gives 43 points for first place reducing by a straight one point per place back to one point for forty-third. There are also three points awarded to the winning driver plus one point to every driver who leads a lap and one point for the driver who leads most laps. So this easier to understand system sees the winning driver receiving in reality 46 points plus an additional one or two points depending on whether he led most laps. NASCAR say 43 for a win yet the winning driver can only ever get either 47 or 48 points. So that is that simplified then! The reality is that the percentage difference of points to be won is not significantly different and the outcome will always be much the same – just different numbers, that’s all.

Unfortunately the new system does nothing to reward consistent top ten finishes, something NASCAR said it would encourage every bit as much as winning, and neither does it do anything to discourage the start and park cars who turn up, race a handful of laps then pull into the garage with some vaguely described problem, collect the money yet add nothing to the show. Equally the chance was lost to put an end to the practice of teams bashing wrecked cars into some sort of reasonably useable shape and re-entering the race many laps down either to increase their points haul or, as happened with Carl Edwards last year, to make a point of wrecking a competitor. A more considered change of points could have all but eliminated those practices.

The second major rule change was that drivers must pick just one championship in which they score points. This was specifically aimed at the Nationwide Series although it is applied to all three. In 2010 six of the top ten finishers in the Nationwide Series points table were guys who competed full time in the Sprint Cup Series. It had always been intended that the Nationwide Series, and its previous incarnation the Busch Series, was a showcase for rising talent to prove themselves worthy of a drive in the Sprint Cup. For several years the drivers from the senior series have dominated the racing and won the title in the second division class.

Both Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have declared an intention to still run a full season in the Nationwide in 2011 and there is every chance other Sprint Cup drivers will make sporadic appearances too. Based on performances last year there is a very real risk we could have the 2011 Nationwide champion be a driver who hasn’t won a race as the regular Sprint Cup drivers still take the race wins between them. With the Nationwide Series also using the 43 to 1 points system it is quite possible that the highest points scored in a race in 2011 could be, say, 37 for seventh place as drivers from the senior series fill the first six places.

Another anomaly with this new ruling arises in the shape of 19 year old Trevor Bayne. He has nominated the Nationwide Series in which to score points this season in the no.16 Roush Fenway Ford Mustang but has been farmed out to the famed Wood Brothers team to drive their no.21 in seventeen races in the Sprint Cup Series. Because he has nominated to score in the second division series he is ineligible for points in the  Sprint Cup and is thus not allowed to run for Rookie of the Year. There is doubt that he would then qualify as a rookie in 2012 if he nominated to run in the Sprint Cup having already run half a season.

One other major rule change was to the qualifying parameters for The Chase after the 26th race. Last year the top twelve drivers in  the points table made up the field for The Chase. That looked flawed when five drivers who hadn’t won during the season qualified for the chance to become champion whilst four drivers who had won – including Jamie McMurray who had won the two biggest races in the calendar, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 – failed to make the grade.

For 2011 the top ten in the points will qualify for The Chase plus the two drivers who have scored most wins and are placed higher than twenty-first in the points table. If two drivers tie on wins then their points total will decide. If there aren’t two winning drivers between tenth and twentieth place then the places will go to the drivers in 11th and, if need be, 12th in the table.

Other rule changes introduced concern the qualifying order – instead of being by a draw now the thirty-five cars guaranteed to start will have their qualifying runs starting with the driver who had the slowest practice time through to the driver with the fastest and then the remaining cars will run, again from slowest to fastest. The teams will be allowed five sets of tyres instead of six for practice and qualifying and will need to return four of those sets before they are given their race tyres. The number of race tyres will be dependant upon historical data.

So back to where we came in and the new rule introduced on Sunday. In an effort to reduce the amount of time two cars can spend hooked up together bump-drafting NASCAR have decreed that the teams must fit a valve set at 33 psi in the mandated size hose that goes to the water overflow tank and also reduce the aperture in the plate sitting immediately behind the faux radiator grille from 20 by 4 inches to 20 by 2.5 inches. The combined effect of these two changes should mean the engines will overheat if the cars stay line astern for too long a period.

And how long is too long? Ah! There’s the rub. You see the teams have been given just Monday and Tuesday to return from Daytona to their facilities in North Carolina, figure how best to perform these alterations and then get back to the Florida circuit for practice on Wednesday followed by the two Gatorade Duels on Thursday which will determine the starting order for Sunday’s Daytona 500 race.

Each of the Duels is 60 laps and the teams are hoping to discover during those how much risk they run of blowing engines on Sunday in a race over three times longer. What the drivers are not going to do is stop the practice of bump-drafting. As Jeff Gordon said, the genie is now out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back. What they need to do is find out how long they can push before risking their engines, before they need to pull out of the slipstream and get some air through the radiator. And find out who has the courage to try and hang at the rear of a car that little bit longer than anyone else, who can find the fine line between blowing his motor and gaining that extra twenty miles per hour.

“The game has changed, that’s all I can say,” Gordon said. “You can’t take knowledge and throw it away. Once you have it, you have it. You maintain it, you apply it. No matter what changes from now to Sunday, we’re still going to have that knowledge. We’ll try to use it to our advantage. You talk about the cooling; you talk about the rev limiters — all those things. Now I got to figure out who has 9500 [RPMs]. Shoot, we can’t run 9500. We got some work to do [smiling]. But, you know, the thing is there are going to be some guys that are going to try to do it for 500 miles.”

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