Obviously the biggest news coming out of the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway last week was the change to the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship format. With more drivers and a greater emphasis put on winning races, NASCAR has set itself up for a very interesting 2014 season - one that could be looked back on as the turning point in the company's rich history.
During the season, the Magic Mile Power Rankings are used as a way to determine the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. With still three weeks until the Daytona 500, this edition of the MMPR will focus on 10 most interesting headlines to come out of the Sprint Media Tour.
10. Jimmie Johnson reacts to new Chase format - When asked if he felt NASCAR was deliberately changing the format of the Chase to stop Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet from winning its seventh championship in the last nine years, Mr. Six-Time was refreshingly honest. "It's crossed my mind, I'm not going so lie," he said. "I think NASCAR probably does care who wins the championship, but they're not laying awake at night wondering how to keep the 48 from winning. … I by no means think this is an attack on the 48."
9. Tony's Back! - It was fitting that the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway dropped the green flag with Stewart-Haas Racing. Not only has the team added a fourth car and two new faces (Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick), but its owner/driver Tony Stewart made his way onto the stage with only a slight limp. It was the first time in a long time that the three-time champion was seen in front of NASCAR media heavyweights. And he didn't disappoint, rattling off sarcastic one-liners as if he were in midseason form. Also of note, Stewart is the only driver to win in the non-Chase era, 10-driver Chase and 12-driver Chase.
8. Blake Shelton vs. Dale Jarrett - No, this wasn't a physical battle - but an emotional one. The country music megastar inducted Jarrett into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last Wednesday night, and he did so with a tear-jerking speech that didn't leave many dry eyes in the house. That was followed by Jarrett's speech, which was equally emotional. It put a perfect bow on an amazing night of inductees.
7. Extreme Makover: All-Star Edition - Okay, well it wasn't anything too crazy, but a slight change to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race in May will make for added excitement. Charlotte Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith announced that the Sprint Showdown, which gives two drivers not already qualified for the All-Star Race, will run on Friday, May 16 - one night prior to the All-Star Race. This will give the two qualifying drivers an opportunity to qualify for position to start the All-Star Race, which will again be determined by the thrilling no speed limit pit stops. The Sprint Showdown will run prior to the Camping World Truck Series North Carolina Education Lottery 200, giving fans a huge bang for their respective buck that Friday night.
6. Junior steals the show - The sport's most popular driver doesn't usually need to say much to get people talking, but Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s attitude and disposition seemed as cool as ever. But with just one win in his last 179 races, the pressure to make the Chase will be as heavy as ever on Junior. "When you look at other forms of sport, there's an elimination factor in the playoffs that we don't have. We, as drivers, don't feel the intensity of an elimination factor being over our shoulders every race. I feel we've had it easy in that regard."
5. Dillon pilots the 3 into Daytona - The fact Austin Dillon is behind the wheel of the 3 car for Richard Childress Racing certainly wasn't news last week, but it was the first time the team had an opportunity to talk about it in an open forum. And the respect and admiration Dillon showed for not only the car but the legend that once drove it showed that the rookie is ready to jump behind the wheel of one of the most admired numbers in NASCAR history.
4. Winning is everything - Win a race. Make the Chase. It's as simple as that. The winner of the Daytona 500 will automatically receive entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, as will any driver winning any of the 26 races prior to the 10-race playoff. Of course, should more than 15 drivers win a race in the regular season, a tiebreaker will commence based on how many wins you have and points accrued during the season. But this isn't about numbers. This is about winning, and the more you do it the better chance you have at making the Chase. Simple as that.
3. New playoff system changes everything - From 12 contenders to 16, the new revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will look a lot different in 2014. Three rounds of eliminations, culminating in winner-take-all four-driver championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16. It's a gamble by the NASCAR brass, but certainly a pat on the back has to be given for taking a chance on a system that could propel the sport into one of the nation's most popular sports once again.
2. Four drivers, 400 miles, one champion - The final race of the season is going to have all the feel of a Super Bowl when the Sprint Cup Series rolls into Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. The elimination playoff will have reduced its field down to four, all of which will have an equal opportunity to leave South Beach as the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion. No bonus points, just four drivers battling it out for 400 miles.
1. OSRAM SYLVANIA 300 provides Contender Round stepping stone - When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes it return to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September, it will once again be as part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The Magic Mile will be the second stop in the Chase's Challenger Round. Any driver winning one of the three races - Chicagoland Speedway, NHMS and Dover International Speedway 2- in the Challenger Round will earn an automatic bid into the Contender Round. That means that the winner of the OSRAM SYLVANIA 300 on Sept. 21 will be one of the 12 drivers moving on to the next round of the playoff. That means the stakes will be at an all-time high and the racing will be as exciting as ever.