Last season’s series champion, Jimmie Johnson, will try to win another under a new NASCAR format beginning Sunday at the Daytona 500. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Daytona signals more big changes for racing

Each new racing season introduces change; that is the one constant of the speed business. It mutates more than the flu virus, with a similar design of infecting the greatest number of humans possible.

With Sunday’s Daytona 500, another genetically modified season will be born. There is a new title sponsor for stock-car racing’s major leagues, one that trades in heavy-metal music, high-risk sport, a young demographic in need of caffeination to get off the couch and leather-corseted young women in the infield — Monster Energy drinks.

But more fundamental to the product is the change to the rhythm of the race itself.

Each one now will be broken into three periods, rather like a Maple Leafs-Canucks game. Each segment will be worth bonus points toward the season-ending chase to the series championship, the idea being that it will give drivers more incentive to race hard over the entire length of the race and give fans more to cheer for and chew on between green and checkered flag.

“The toughest part is to try to explain it to someone who doesn’t know it. But once you understand it, it’s a no-brainer that it’s going to be awesome for our sport,” said driver Joey Logano, speaking both for the confusion that comes with this culture of continual change and the enthusiasm with which this latest alteration seems to have been embraced.

At Daytona, it will work something like this: At laps 60 and 120 (of the 200-lap race), NASCAR will fly the yellow caution flag and take account of where drivers stand. The top 10 in the first two stages will be awarded bonus points in descending order that count in the standings for the 10-race chase for the championship at season’s end. In addition, winners of the first two segments receive a playoff point that will be carried over through the first three stages of the chase, when all other points are reset. The race winner gets five bonus playoff points in addition to the usual points awarded according to finish.

On a shorter track at Atlanta Motor Speedway the following week, the segments fall on laps 85, 170 and the finish, at 325 laps.

Uh, yeah, it is difficult to explain. It’s like trying to describe a Mardi Gras costume. You’re just going to have to try it on and see how it looks.

Points systems usually are difficult (check out golf’s FedEx Cup). And fans generally don’t watch a sporting event to do a lot of math. They’d just like some good, meaningful competition.

Michael Waltrip, who is running one last race Sunday before getting back to his duties as a Fox NASCAR analyst, is seeing this change through a broadcaster’s eyes.

“I like the idea of the stages because as a TV guy it just gives us more stuff to talk about. More moments. We can build toward those stages,” he said.

“I think it’s great. I’m looking forward to seeing these brilliant minds of the crew chiefs down on pit road figure out how to win the stage and win the race, not to jeopardize one or another.”

Through regular changes in the points system, Jimmie Johnson has won a record-tying seven series championships. If he wins an eighth, it would represent the third format he has conquered. On this change, he is driving directly astride the company line. “I’m excited for the changes that are taking place in our sport,” he said.

The theory behind it all is that it will make the racing more watchable, which is kind of important to a sport whose TV ratings and track attendance has slumped. While the goal remains be to be first at the end of the final segment — and do donuts on the track as the race winner — the new format is meant to intensify the racing while breaking it down into more easily digestible portions for the viewer.

“You don’t have to completely understand it,” Logano said of the format. “You just got to know that, hey, it’s going to be a great race, there’s a lot more to race for, drivers are going to be more aggressive — end of story.”

Said 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick: “There’s really no time to relax, and I think that’s going to create a little more of a chaotic atmosphere just for the fact that there is so much more to get, and if you don’t aggressively try to go out and get those things you’re going to get behind pretty fast.”

Drivers say that during long, green-flag runs there may not be as many noticeable differences in race strategy under the new format. But let a caution come out near the close of one of the stages, then the potential grows for a wild race within a race.

They also figure that, given the lasting value of the bonus points, that this is a better, fairer system of determining a champion than any of those of the recent past.

“A step in the right direction of having a true Cup champion, versus a one-race champion or a playoff type reset where one bad race can take you out even through you might have been the best team the entire year,” driver Ryan Newman said.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your calculators.

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