Remember in “Days of Thunder” when driver Cole Trickle, Tom Cruise’s character, pulls into the pits and crew chief Harry Hogge, Robert Duvall’s character, tells him to go back on track and hit the pace car, because he has hit every other (expletive) thing out there?
Substitute “change” for “hit” and you have a good idea of what the real-life NASCAR brain trust did during the offseason.
It’s common to make a few changes during wintertime, but this recent batch were whoppers that would have impressed the folks at Burger King. With attendance and TV ratings lagging and sponsors falling by the wayside, NASCAR practically threw out the rule book and started over.
A look at what’s new in 2017, for better, for worse, for somewhere in between:
Sprint is out. Monster Energy — and the Monster Energy girls — is in.
With telecommunications giant Sprint’s 10-year-commitment having expired, NASCAR announced during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas it would partner with Monster. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, which means NASCAR brought Monster on board for much less than Sprint brought to the table.
The hope is that Monster will help introduce big-time stock car racing to a younger demographic. The Monster Energy girls and their snug-fitting outfits have drawn the ire of conservative fans, but party guy Rob Gronkowski of the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots seemed to enjoy their company during the Daytona 500 pregame show. Perhaps that’s a start of something.
Out with the old. Again. In with a new format that has spun heads around as if they were in a wind tunnel.
NASCAR races are now divided into three stages, with a yellow flag thrown after the first two so fans in the stands can fetch another beer, and fans watching at home can do the same, or make a sandwich. Drivers running in the top 10 at the end of these stages receive championship points, and stage and race winners will receive bonus points that carry over during the playoffs at the end of the season.
In theory, these shorter races within a longer race will make early jockeying for position more exciting.
It’s sort of/most definitely complicated, but as driver Denny Hamlin said when the radical changes were announced: “You don’t have to know how a watch works; you just have to know what time it is.”
The Chase for the Championship has ceased to be. The 10 races after the first 26 now are are called “playoffs,” as in the stick-and-ball sports NASCAR is trying to emulate.
Drivers who pull damaged cars into the garage area or behind the pit wall must now visit the infield care center for a checkup. This may help prevent the kind of post-concussion symptoms that sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr. for roughly half of 2016.
Crews on cars wadded up in crashes will have only five minutes to make repairs on pit road before they are eliminated from making further laps. The clock apparently is kept in the NASCAR hauler or up in a booth somewhere. It’s like in soccer when the referee adds extra time at the end of a match. You just have to take his word for it.
— Pit Stall 13 (@PitStall13) February 26, 2017
Tony Stewart retired at the end of last season, which was expected, and Carl Edwards did the same before the start of this one, which was not. Clint Bowyer and Mexican-born Daniel Suarez were announced as their replacements.
In any other offseason, these transactions would have been major news for weeks. During this tumultuous one, they hardly moved the needle.
NASCAR fans are going to miss the colorful Stewart, and NASCAR media will miss the insightful Edwards. But at least Junior’s back, and he was leading at Daytona until being collected in a crash.
If there’s one thing NASCAR fans can agree on, it’s that it’s always great to have Junior back. <![CDATA[*/ ]]>
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