The 32nd annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour came to a close on Thursday with NASCAR'S announcement of a new championship format to conclude its season. Putting a greater emphasis on winning, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has expanded its field to 16 drivers with a new round-by-round elimination format that ultimately pits four drivers in a winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale.
"Everything about this is focused around winning, and that's exactly what our fans want," said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO. "We have millions of fans and some very loud and passionate fans, especially when we change anything. The vast majority of the fans that we communicated with really love this because they don't like points racing. Being the best down the stretch is most important and this is going to elevate the opportunity for more drivers to have those moments."
The top 15 drivers with the most victories over the first 26 races will earn a spot in the NASCAR Chase Grid (as long as they have finished 30th or better in the standings and have attempted to qualify for every race). The 16th Chase spot will be rewarded to the points leader after the final race at Richmond International Raceway, if he or she does not have a victory.
For instance, should there be only 14 winners, then the final two spots will go to the two drivers with the most points without a win, and so on. Should there be more than 16 winners over the course of the first 26 races, the only winless driver who can earn a spot in the Chase would be the points leader after 26 races.
"I’ve been an avid fan for 50 years, and there’ve been times in my career in NASCAR I’ve had to take my avid fan hat off to make tough decisions," said NASCAR President Mike Helton. “This decision and where we’re going with the grid is exciting to me officially, but it’s even more exciting to me as an avid fan."
Once the Chase qualifiers have been determined, the points will be reset and the top-16 will move on to the Challenger Round, which will be competed over three races at Chicagoland Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway. The top-12 in points after Dover will move on to the Contender Round (at Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway), where the points will again be reset. The top-eight after Talladega will then move on to the Eliminator Round (at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway), where the points will be reset yet again. The top four after Phoenix will compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a winner-take-all race that will determine the champion based on whoever of the four has the best finish. There will be no bonus points for leading a lap at Miami.
A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Chase race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next Chase round.
Drivers who are eliminated in the Contender and Eliminator rounds will have their points reset to the Chase-start base of 2,000 (with any regular-season wins bonus points), plus the additional points earned in the Chase.
In addition to the changes to the Chase, NASCAR announced its 2014 Drive for Diversity class. Selected from a pool representing 14 states and Mexico, the drivers will compete in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
The class includes Ryan Gifford (Winchester, Tenn.), Daniel Suarez (Monterrey, Mexico), Jay Beasley (Las Vegas, Nev.), Sergio Pena (Winchester, Va.), Devon Amos (Rancho Ricardo, New Mexico), Paige Decker (Eagle River, Wisc.).
HISTORY HONORED AT NASCAR HALL -- The 2014 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony capped off Wednesday’s activities on the 32nd annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. Drivers who comprise the five-person class include Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty and Fireball Roberts. The five inductees came from a group of 25 nominees.
Flock won two NASCAR premier series championships in four years (1952 and 1955). His 18 wins in 1955 were a NASCAR premier single season record until Richard Petty won 27 races in 1967. Flock is the only driver to win in every division at the Daytona Beach and Road Course (Strictly Stock, convertible and modified stock). He finished his career with 39 wins and 38 poles in 187 premier series starts. Flock died on March 31, 1998.
“Boy, this is like being at the Super Bowl of racing tonight,” said Flock’s wife, Frances. “I bet my darling and all the past drivers are having one huge race up in heaven tonight. I can almost hear them telling them stories, especially Tim telling the story about Jocko.”
Ingram has five NASCAR championships, including three straight Late Model Sportsman (1972-1974) and two NASCAR Busch Series titles (1982, 1985). He earned the nickname “Iron Man” after running 1,750 miles in six races in five days in five states over Labor Day weekend in 1973. Ingram scored 31 wins and five poles in 275 NASCAR Busch/Nationwide Series starts.
“I’m honored to be here tonight, beyond words,” Ingram said. “This is a major lifetime achievement for me. While I was driving the car I had plenty of help and support along the way otherwise I wouldn’t be here tonight.”
Petty is the first engine builder elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Engines built by Petty won seven championships and more than 200 NASCAR premier series races including seven Daytona 500 victories. Petty was also the winning crew chief of the 1970 Daytona 500 with driver Pete Hamilton.
“Who would have thought growing up that there would be four of us out of a small, rural country community in the NASCAR Hall of Fame,” Petty said. “I want to thank my wife Patricia for taking care of the children, looking after them, taking care of the home, paying all the bills and supporting me allowing me to work and accomplish the things that I did. I want to thank all the people who worked for Lee, Richard and me at Petty Enterprises including Dale Inman. We were one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history.”
Roberts is considered by many as the first superstar of NASCAR. He won seven times at his home track, Daytona International Speedway, including the 1962 Daytona 500. He started only 10 races in 1958 but won six of them, including his first of two Southern 500 victories. Roberts won 33 races and 32 poles in 207 premier series starts. He died on July 2, 1964.
“We are proud that our grandfather, who sacrificed his life to racing, is being honored by NASCAR; the organization that set the scene for a life well lived,” Roberts’ grandson said during the induction ceremony. “Thank you to all of those on the nominating committee and voting panel. I’m sure that our grandfather would be pleased to know that he was part of such a wonderful class of inductees.”
Jarrett won the 1999 NASCAR premier series championship with four wins and 29 top-10 finishes in 34 starts. Among Jarrett’s 32 premier series victories are three Daytona 500 wins (1993, 1996 and 2000) and two Brickyard 400s (1996 and 1999). He and father Ned and Lee and Richard Petty are the only father-son combinations to win NASCAR premier series championships. Jarrett scored 32 wins and 16 poles in 668 premier series starts.
“As I’ve thought about being inducted with these four superstars of our sport - Tim Flock, Fireball Roberts, Maurice Petty and Jack Ingram along with the 20 individuals before us, I realize that I may have the most unique perspective of this entire group of Hall of Famers,” Jarrett said. “You see, I watched and lived around many of them as a kid while my Hall of Fame father was racing against them. I later had the opportunity to race with many of them, drive for some of them and certainly learn valuable lessons from most of them - that was on and off the track.”
VICKERS EAGER TO GET BACK BEHIND WHEEL - After being sidelined with recurring health issues last season, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers said he can’t wait to get back behind the wheel in 2014.
“I'm cleared. I'm ready, off blood thinners. I've never been more ready in my entire life to get back in a race car,” he told media at the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday.
Vickers’ latest three-month hiatus provided him the opportunity to take his wife on a honeymoon and relax a little, but also served as a reminder of how much he misses races.
Moving forward, Vickers said, managing his health is just a matter of being aware of warning signs and
“That’s really all you can do,” Vickers said. “My last incident was a provoked incident. I had to wear a boot for a month. In those situations, we’ve got to be more mindful of it, but that’s really all you can do.”
Team owner Michael Waltrip said he’s optimistic looking ahead to 2014. Several sponsors, including Peak, Five Hour Energy and Aaron’s will be back on board with Vickers and teammate Clint Bowyer, and the team has added Kansas Strong to the lineup as well.
“We are as prepared as we have ever been at this point in the season,” Bowyer said. “We are poised and ready for battle. It’s been a great off season, but I'm ready.”
EXCITEMENT TO SPARE AT JOE GIBBS RACING— No news is good news for the Joe Gibbs Racing team, and they are excited to continue the momentum of 2013 into the 2014 season. The unofficial tally of the word “excited” in reference to the upcoming season reached 34 before drivers discussed the sport’s changes in breakout sessions.
After a tough 2013 season, Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, believes that the NASCAR winner-takes-all championship format plays into his history of success at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I think it’s great for me. That’s for sure. I think that every kind of format that I’ve heard about the Chase and everything really benefits me a lot,” Hamlin said before NASCAR outlined the rules changes Thursday afternoon. “There’s the whole thing of win a Chase race and move on. I know it’s all good stuff. Knowing that I’ve got Martinsville before Homestead, if I win Martinsville then I’ll automatically be part of Homestead’s championship picture. All that seems great for our team in particular. Homestead is one of our best race tracks, no doubt about it.”
Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, also trusts NASCAR to make the right changes for the sport and is more concerned about making those changes work for him.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that unless I get my opinion asked,” Kenseth said. “They’re way smarter than I am, and they’re going to figure out what’s best for the sport all the way around from rules package to format changes to whatever it may be. It’s our job to figure out how to take advantage of that, make it work for us and try to succeed in that environment. That’s really more what I’m worried about.”
Hamlin and Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, had a slightly different opinion on the changing format, but is ready for whatever happens.
“We all expressed our reasons of making some slight changes to it and seeing if they would bite on any of it, but they didn’t, of course,” Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota Camry, said. “It was already said and done, and what’s coming is coming.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“I’m not even a really good driver and I got more than that.”
Michael Waltrip, in response to Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer saying he only has one pole in his career.