On Monday, NASCAR announced a bold new points’ structure to coincide with the new entitlement sponsor, Monster Energy.
NASCAR senses that the fan base has evolved from the days of endurance-style racing. In the Golden Age of stock car racing, drivers and teams were forced to protect their equipment until the final laps of a 500-mile race. But advancements in technology no longer make that an open question and now teams bide their time and simply wait for the end.
The introduction of Monster Energy as an entitlement sponsor provided a natural segue into a new era, just as the introduction of Nextel/Sprint provided a good opportunity to introduce the Chase for the Championship. The hope is that Monster Energy will tap into their fan base as well, and drive a younger audience toward the Cup series.
The question shifts to what NASCAR should do with those new fans.
The answer is to raise the sense of urgency for every lap and every race.
When NASCAR implemented the win-and-in format that guaranteed a spot in the Chase, the unintended consequence was that a driver who won the Daytona 500—like Denny Hamlin did last year—would treat the remainder of the season as a test and not race hard for victories. The same was true of the driver who won the second race, and third, and fourth, and so on until there were quite a few unmotivated drivers.
A bonus went with each victory, but those bonuses expired at the end of the end of round one of the playoffs and did not provide sufficient incentive.
The answer to the problem faced was to make every race count. And not only every race, but every lap of every race.
For a complete description of NASCAR’s rules change, take a moment to read Dustin Long’s excellent piece, NASCAR announces enhancements to race formats.
The most significant change is that races will now be divided into three stages and NASCAR has made running in the top 10 at those segments meaningful. The Daytona 500 will not alter its format, but the Duels in Daytona will act as the stages for this particular races.
The first two segments will most likely encompass the first and second quarters of a race, leaving a longer segment at the end for drivers and teams to implement more traditional strategies. Points will be paid to the top 10 runners at the end of each segment, starting at 10 for the leader with one point going to the driver in 10th place. At the end of the race, 40 points will be awarded to the winner; drivers finishing 36th through 40th will receive one point. Bonuses for leading a lap, the most laps, and winning the race have been eliminated. A driver who leads both segments and the race could earn a maximum of 60 points.
Increasing the maximum points means more is at stake in a single race, and that is going to have one of the biggest impacts on fantasy racing. Imagine a field full of drivers racing flat out every week. Now imagine what happens when they make a minor mistake. Racing for a top-10 finish is no longer for honor. Those points will be incredibly important to who makes or misses the top-16 cutoff for the playoffs.
NASCAR has created at least three “moments” in the race when a single position means a point. Ryan Newman is one of the best closers in the sport—often gaining two or three positions in the final 10 percent of a race. If he can do that during each segment, suddenly he has four or six more points per race, which multiplied by 26 regular season races could be a swing of more than 200 markers. It could make a huge difference in who qualifies for the playoffs.
A race win still locks a driver into the playoffs, but he can never give up. “There are no off weeks. Every single race matters. Not only that, but every lap of every race matters,” Hamlin said during the conference announcing the format change.
One bonus point will be awarded the winner of each of the first two segments. Five bonus points will still be given to the winner and all of these bonuses will carry through the first three rounds of the playoffs. In the past, a driver who won four races had a 20-point advantage for only the first round. For winning those same four races and if he won at least one segment in each race, he could have 24 points added to his total and would benefit from that addition in the second and third rounds.
Again, increasingly the volatility of the points means raising the stakes and emotional level for the racers. It also means the field is essentially racing for the win three times instead of once and drivers will often take drastic steps to get that trophy—or in this case, the bonus point.
The gloves come off in just a little more than a month, and it is likely we will not know the full impact of this new format. It promises to be exciting, however, and change the strategies of not only drivers and teams, but also fantasy players.
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