NASCAR’s new rules make slow starts less stressful
March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
LAS VEGAS — The early returns for some Sprint Cup drivers are in and they’re ugly.
Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick are among drivers off to poor starts just three races into a 36-race season.
These five range from 22nd (Bowyer) to 33rd (Patrick) in the points standings.
However, the numbers are not as bad as a first glance might indicate.
A key difference in the new season is that drivers and teams need not grind their teeth over early-season struggles — at least not nearly as much as in past seasons. If you stumble and fall, the checkered flag is there as a black-and-white safety net.
Although points are likely to be the determining factor in filling at least a few spots in the 16-driver season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup, the simpler avenue into the playoffs runs through victory lane. A win in any of the 26 regular-season races is a passport into the Chase regardless of performance in previous events (as long as the winner is in the top 30 in points, a not-so-difficult achievement). If more than 16 different drivers score wins in the season’s first 26 races, the number of wins per driver will determine Chase qualifying.
Since the Chase began in 2004, however, the highest number of different winners in the regular season is 15. That happened once.
If the number of race winners is below 16, the rest of the Chase grid will be filled using the points standings.
A look at how the five have fared:
–Bowyer finished next-to-last in the Daytona 500 after engine trouble and was 13th at Phoenix before finishing 23rd and a lap down Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
–Truex, driving for a new team at Furniture Row Racing, has runs of 43, 22 and 14.
–Stewart, still recovering from a broken right leg that shortened his 2013 season by 15 races, was 35th at Daytona and 16th at Phoenix and had a rotten day Sunday, finishing 33rd, a stunning four laps behind the leaders (He complained of his car being loose and said afterward, “Something wasn’t right.”
–Busch, who is in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, has finished only two of the races and had a sour day Sunday, limping home three laps down in 26th.
–Teammate Patrick has finishes of 40th, 36th and 21st.
Busch has had a tougher start than any other driver with high expectations.
“The points format is now all about just grabbing that one win and just relaxing,” he said. “If you’re doing your job, you should be in the top 20 in points and not worry about being out of the top 16. We had car damage when we got hit on pit road in Daytona and blew a motor at Phoenix. … Those are moments you have for the full 26 races when you check off a motor or somebody runs into you or the driver makes a mistake. Two out of three of our punchcards have already been taken.
“We just need to get back in our rhythm. We’ll be fine. If we get that one win, it takes all the pressure off.”
Kyle Busch, a multiple race winner in six of his nine Sprint Cup campaigns but never a solid threat for a championship, doesn’t seem to be losing much sleep over the new spin.
“If I get a win or multiple wins or whatever, great, that’s cool,” he said. “If I don’t get any wins, as long as I’m in the top 16 in points and there aren’t 16 guys that have wins, then I’m fine, right?”
Kyle Busch is 10th in points despite a humdrum start (19th at Daytona, ninth at Phoenix, 11th at Las Vegas).
“My start is not terrible,” Kyle said. “I’m (10th) in points or something like that, so I’m kind of already in, if you look at it that way.
“It changes everything the way the whole year and everybody’s strategy is and what all it’s going to boil down to. You never know what you will see next weekend at Bristol. You could have guys racing each other hard for the win and move the other out of the way just to get that win and lock themselves in.”
Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing, is among the team executives paid to juggle the new numbers and worry about how they might crunch in the run-up to the Chase. He figures to fight less stress than most because each of his drivers — Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch — is expected to score at least one win during the regular season.
Kenseth was the runner-up for the 2013 championship with seven wins in his first season with JGR; Hamlin won an exhibition race and one of the Budweiser Duel qualifying races at Daytona; and Busch has at least one win in all nine of his seasons.
“The fact that all three have won races in the past and win on a fairly consistent basis is definitely something that makes you feel good, but, of course, anything can happen,” Makar said. “You can get on a run of not running good, sort of like Denny did last year.
“But knowing your guys can do it does give you a sense of confidence that somewhere in the first part of the season all three should be able to get a win.”
Hamlin was winless in 2013 after suffering a broken back in March and missing four races in the spring until scoring a victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Points issues and big questions can be eliminated in a heartbeat with a win, Makar said.
“You have a lot of mulligans throughout the year,” he said. “You can run terrible everywhere else but win two races and you’re in.”
Despite the vast differences in Chase qualifying rules this year, Ford driver Marcos Ambrose, who was 24th Sunday, said he’s trying to view the new season from the same perspective as before.
“I don’t want to put myself in a points hole in the first four or five weeks,” he said. “If you win a race, you’re locked in pretty much, so those who want to win will get more aggressive. It will naturally change that about the way we go about our business. … Right now, though, I think all the drivers want to get their cars dialed in, get a decent start to the season, get points and go from there.”
As Makar points out, part of the mystery surrounding the early part of the season involves teams’ reactions to the new car-preparation rules NASCAR ushered in this year. Leading teams are toying with various race-day chassis and aerodynamic packages at the first few tracks on the schedule, and different approaches have created some unknowns as far as which teams will be strong and which might struggle across the broad landscape of the season.
“People are experimenting a lot, and we’re seeing some people run bad and some run good,” Makar said. “It all depends on the package you’re trying. “… that is probably going to cause more up-and-down movement in the standings than before, and that should give you more chances to move up. But, still, the win is the big thing.”